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Spain's Science Minister Sees Future in Telcom

This article is reposted from the January 31, 2003 issue of Science magazine .

When economist Josep Piqué was appointed Minister of Science and Technology last July during a Cabinet reshuffle, he knew he had a hard act to follow. His predecessor, Anna Birulés, had won respect for making Prime Minister José Maria Aznar's campaign promises in 2000 of more support for science a reality. Spain's science budget, $4 billion for 2003, has increased 28.7% in 3 years, and Birulés launched a clutch of innovative R&D efforts. Prominent among them is the lauded Ramón y Cajal program, which disbursed $300 million last year on tenure-track positions for some 2000 new postdocs at Spanish research centers. Birulés also had to whip into shape a superministry formed from three former ministries.

Piqué is no stranger to Aznar's government, having spent nearly 3 years as foreign minister before the reshuffle. But this energetic 47-year-old Catalan is new to science and has already ruffled feathers over the government's response to the Prestige oil spill ( Science, 24 January, p. 490) and over his desire to focus on telecommunications and other industrial areas of his portfolio. He has also spurned recent calls from academics who have urged him to try to persuade defense officials to relinquish a portion of Spain's hefty military R&D budget--estimated at $1.37 billion--for civilian research. In a wide-ranging conversation with Science, Piqué acknowledged that his top priorities are to boost innovation, telecommunications, and information technology. But he has pledged to fight to land the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), a fusion-energy project that five countries are vying to host. An edited transcript, translated from Catalan, follows.

Q: Many people think that your ministry is preoccupied with telecommunications. Is it true that fundamental research takes a back seat to innovation?

A: We need a very potent telecommunications sector that helps us weave new technologies into the social fabric and make Spain an information society. It's logical that this receives the ministry's attention, particularly as it gets a lot of media attention. Conversely, basic science doesn't generate so much media attention.

Q: So science gets short shrift because it's not avidly consumed by the public?

A: Science only interests the public when it sparks a debate; take, for instance, the argument over embryonic stem cells versus adult stem cells. But this does not mean that basic science is not receiving enough attention from politicians. Last month, we hosted the seventh negotiating round of a great scientific installation, ITER. I have tried to give it the highest prominence I can. It would be good for our scientists if we could host it. We are talking about a complex ministry that manages important resources, and so we have to pay attention to many things.

Q: Many European scientists think that Framework 6 [Europe's 5-year, $17.5 billion flagship research program] is too bureaucratic and too industrially oriented. Do you favor the creation of a European Research Council ( Science, 3 May 2002, p. 826) to boost basic science?

A: Make no mistake, research must be useful for society. That happens to a great extent, as basic science can feed into applied science, which in turn drives innovation and competitiveness. We have to strive to link the support of basic science to future applications. Logically, there is a problem of time: We cannot ask immediate results from basic science, and thus we have to find an equilibrium. As for FP6, I do share the criticisms over the excessive bureaucracy. Researchers should be doing research, not paperwork. But I do not think that a European Research Council is necessary.

Q: In 2001, the Catalan government launched Icrea, a program that, unlike Ramón y Cajal, aims to lure senior scientists working abroad back home. Have you considered a similar initiative for all of Spain?

A: We have had a conscious policy to recapture top-level scientists. This is perfectly compatible with Icrea, which is a fantastic initiative. But I would like to dispel the notion that the main problem of science in Spain is "brain drain." This is not currently true. Now there are many more scientists from abroad working in Spain than there are Spanish scientists abroad. But I think that one challenge we have, in addition to assuring that prestigious researchers can develop their work in Spain, is how to lure more foreign scientists to our country.

Q: The government has come under fire for what is perceived as a disproportionately high level of spending on military R&D. What is your reaction?

A: It's a highly controversial issue and highly polarized. But in serious countries, this is not a matter of discussion. Nobody doubts that military research must be done. Whoever advocates to the contrary must know that he or she is telling Spain to resign its status as a first-class country. I know that what I am saying is politically incorrect. But I have long insisted that Europe as a whole and Spain in particular must make ourselves responsible for European security; we cannot count on the United States forever.

Q: So are you content with the current level of military R&D spending?

A: I want to see it sustained and, if we are able, to increase it in the future.

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