'Very Significant' Cuts to Spanish Science Funding Coming: Minister

Spanish science has been shaken by a series of tremors of ill omen in recent days, say online reports. Word that current Spanish Science and Innovation Minister Cristina Garmendia may leave the government, that president Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero could dissolve her ministry and that the science budget will suffer yet another drastic cut have spread uncertainty about the future of science in Spain.

Last Wednesday, rumors that Garmendia wanted to leave her ministerial position started to spread on the Internet. According to online Spanish newspaper El Confidencial, Garmendia told Zapatero before the summer holidays that she wished to leave the government to come back to private research. Before becoming minister in April 2008, Garmendia was co-founder and president of the biotech company Genetrix.

El Confidencial mentioned "the frustration caused by the drastic budget cuts her department has suffered and the reduction in competencies since she took the position" as reasons for her wish to leave.

According to the same newspaper, Zapatero asked Garmendia to wait until the next governmental crisis when he would extensively restructure the Council of Ministers.

The Spanish president was quick to deny publicly that he was planning an imminent restructuring of his government. As reported by Europa Press on Friday, Zapatero also said that Garmendia "was herself 'extremely surprised' by the circulating information that she is negotiating her departure from the government and that, rather on the contrary, she is 'full of projects.' "

But Garmendia kept silent on the matter until this morning when she dismissed the rumors during a press conference given at the occasion of a meeting on energy R&D in Madrid.

As reported in national newspaper El Mundo, "the minister has indicated that she is 'absolutely committed' to the 'numerous projects' that currently figure in the agenda of the department of science and innovation."

Another bombshell was dropped by national newspaper El Pais on Sunday, however: "Even though the Ministry of Science and Education suffered, in the state budget elaborated by the government for 2010, the greatest cut of all [ministries] (15%), and even though the scientists and science policy experts warned and reiterated that the reduction was bad for one year but that it could be devastating for the system if it was prolonged, the government is now studying another cut again." Although she didn't give any figure, according to El Mundo, Garmendia confirmed this morning that there would be "very significant" cuts in the national science budget for next year.

"That would be a disaster," President of the Confederation of Spanish Scientific Societies Joan Guinovart told ScienceInsider. Although Garmendia has been criticized by the scientific community to let the funding cuts happen in 2010, it would be disappointing to many if she were to leave the government: "She's one of us. She's a scientist. In a way, she was ideally suited to do a good job," Guinovart says. "The scientific community has been a strong advocate of this minister of science, innovation, and higher education, and we were quite disappointed when universities were cut down and transferred from this ministry to education," after just one year, Guinovart adds.

Back when it was created a few years ago, the scientific community saw in the new ministry for science, education, and innovation the possibility to finally create "this new Spain, based on talent, based on research. ... So it would be quite disappointing if this ministry eventually disappears," Guinovart says.

UPDATE, 15 September, 10:20 A.M.:

In Congress this morning Garmendia clarified to the media that, while "significant adjustments in all the ministries" are being considered, "R&D investment is going to be the clear priority of the national budget for 2011" and referred to "a situation close to a funding freeze."

The science budget is still being debated.