Spanish Science Budget a Gamble for the Future

First impressions can be deceiving. The 2010 science budget the Spanish Science and Innovation Ministry presented to Parliament last week has now spread concern and uncertainty among the Spanish scientific community. In an open letter published a couple of days later in the national newspaper El País, 51 biomedical investigators declared their "enormous perplexity and confusion" at what some perceive as a breach of the government's pledge to promote science and a knowledge-based economy.

If passed through Parliament, the ministry's overall 2010 science and innovation budget would total more than €5290 million, representing a 0.2% increase compared to the 2009 amount. "Scientific research in Spain is absolutely guaranteed," Cristina Garmendia, the nation’s science and innovation minister, recently reassured attendees at a press conference, though she also admitted in an article published in El País today that she wasn't satisfied with the current funding proposal.

Many scientists have found the complex budget plans less than comforting. The overall 2010 science and innovation budget includes R&D money that is to be given out to companies in the form of loans, a common practice in Spain, notes Luis Sanz-Menéndez, director of the Institute of Public Goods and Policies in Madrid. And because the amount budgeted to such loans would increase compared to in 2009, "the science part of the budget has been significantly reduced" compared to last year, says Sanz-Menéndez.

In spite of this reduction, the ministry committed to maintain all ongoing research projects and staff contracts and even launch new competitive calls in 2010. Sanz-Menéndez estimates that the ministry may not be able to pay for all that with the current amount indicated in the budget plan, unless it breaks with the custom of giving newly approved, multiyear research projects about 60% of their promised funding in the first year. Unless there are some budget increases coming out of the parliamentary procedure, "most probably, in 2010, the ministry will radically reduce the first installment," Sanz-Menéndez predicts. By doing so, the ministry would effectively delay the bulk of the payment until the following years, with the expectation that Spain’s rocky finances will have improved by then. That’s far from certain, Sanz-Menéndez says.

These 2010 funding reductions will be all the more difficult for national research centers to absorb given that the ministry also plans to drastically cut the lump sums it gives them for their expenses next year. The ministry insists that the research centers will do just fine, because they are now in a position to use reserve money, win national and European competitive funds, collaborate with companies, and license patents to industry.

After the funding boosts they have received in recent years, research centers do have some spare money they can use, but adapting management strategies and securing new funding from outside sources takes time, says Sanz-Menéndez, whose research institute falls under the umbrella of the largest research center in Spain, the Spanish National Research Council. "There is a serious risk" that some research centers will have to reduce their activities or even close down some lines of research in 2010, he adds. Any reduction in institutional support could be particularly tough on Spain’s young researchers, many of whom are on soft grant money or short-term contracts that may not be renewed at the end of the year.

The budget protest letter came from 51 out of 58 group leaders at Ciberned, a national network of research groups created in early 2007 to promote research in neurodegenerative diseases. As it now stands, Ciberned should receive about 20% less money than last year from the ministry to cover its costs. This means that Ciberned will probably have to cut back on new collaborative research programs it planned to launch next year.

"The whole world is in economic decline. The budget has to be tightened up. Researchers need to be aware of that," a source in the executive committee of Ciberned notes. But no matter the difficulties to come in 2010, the government needs to show a genuine commitment to provide adequate funding to research programs beyond 2011, the Ciberned source adds. "If the budget reductions continue in 2011, it's going to be a collapse of the system," Sanz-Menéndez agrees.