Spanish plan for a funding agency gets lukewarm reception

A row of telescopes at the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory in La Palma, Spain.

A row of telescopes at the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory in La Palma, Spain.

Bob Tubbs/wikimedia commons

BARCELONA, SPAIN—The Spanish government has finally made good on its promise to create a national science funding agency. On Friday, it announced the launch of the State Research Agency, which could start disbursing grants as early as 2017.

The agency doesn't come with new money—instead it will usurp existing research budgets—but it will guarantee more stability in the funding stream and “more agile, flexible, and autonomous” management procedures, the Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness, which oversees Spanish science, wrote in its announcement.

Scientists are cautiously optimistic, but many have questions. Few operational details have been provided so far, and there are doubts about the scientific independence of the agency’s management. Some researchers also wonder about the future of the agency if the ruling People’s Party (PP) loses the parliamentary elections, slated for 20 December.

The announcement is "good news,” says mathematician Carlos Andradas Heranz, the rector of the Complutense University of Madrid and former president of the Confederation of Scientific Societies of Spain. But “what remains to be seen is how much true will there is” to change the funding system “and how much of it is simply a political operation.”

Economist Aurelia Modrego Rico of the University Carlos III of Madrid is harsher. The government's announcement doesn't really address many of the scientific community's needs and demands, Modrego Rico argues; the agency's creation is “late, inopportune, outdated, fruitless, and insufficient,” she says.

Until now, Spain's State Secretariat for Research, Development and Innovation was in charge of managing funding calls. The Spanish scientific community had long decried that system's vulnerability to economic and political cycles, its erratic schedule, the lack of long-term planning, and bureaucracy. To address those issues, a new science law passed in 2011 promised the establishment of an autonomous funding research agency. To the frustration of the scientific community, the government has taken more than 4 years to fulfill that pledge.

The new agency will be formed by spinning off staff, money, and equipment from the state secretariat into an autonomous body that will employ some 300 people and take charge of the entire funding pipeline—from issuing calls and allocating project-based grants to measuring impact—in all disciplines. The government anticipates that the agency will manage about €700 million, 75% of the annual budget so far allocated to public research grants. It will facilitate “the incorporation of the best international practices for evaluation, the accountability of allocated grants, and the simplification of the administrative processes,” the government assured.

But scientists worry that it won't be sufficiently independent. The agency will remain within the Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness and will be chaired by research state secretary Carmen Vela or whoever replaces her after the general elections. According to a secretariat spokesperson, the executive director will be a prominent scientist who will be able to “make decisions in an independent manner”; to be heard by the government, that person must be an influential scientist, says Juan José Negro, an evolutionary ecologist and former director of the Doñana Biological Station in Seville.

It's also “somewhat disappointing" that the governing council, to be created within the next 60 days, will have only four other scientists, along with 10 representatives of various ministries and trade unions, Negro says: "The efficacy of this committee remains to be seen.”

Whether the agency can really guarantee more stable funding, as many scientists were hoping, is unclear as well. Until now, the government has produced a science budget on a yearly basis, and in an interview yesterday with national newspaper El País, Vela admitted that it won’t be within the State Research Agency’s power to change this. But the agency will be able to retain funds that remain unused at the end of a fiscal year, the secretariat spokesperson tells ScienceInsider; in the current funding system, that money returns to the Ministry of Finance.

Given the broad political support for the 2011 law, the agency’s future isn't dependent on who wins next month's elections, the government spokesperson says. But a representative of the Spanish Socialist Workers' Party (PSOE), one of the main opposition parties, said in El Pais on Friday that the PSOE doesn't accept the agency’s model as imposed by the PP. She threatened to “paralyze" the plan and implement an alternative.  

Even if the agency comes into being, some in the Spanish scientific community and beyond worry that it won't be accompanied by other profound reforms in the national science system. “The danger is that [the agency] will mean no more than a change in letterheads if its creation is not accompanied by other more urgent measures,” Spanish astronomer Amaya Moro-Martín of the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, writes in an email. Above all, “[the] Spanish science system needs a significant increase in civil R&D spending,” she says.

“The Agency is only a first step,” adds Luke Georghiou, vice president for research and innovation at the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom, who chaired a panel of European experts that wrote a report on how to make Spanish science more competitive. Other actions are needed in order to retain young talent and reform some of the public institutions that the agency will support, he says.

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