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Young Spanish Scientists in Limbo

CREDIT: Peter Church, via Wikimedia Commons

Last August, Spanish scientist Yolanda Escudero-Martín was on a research stay at the NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field in California when her funding dried up. The research was part of a 4-year Ph.D. in artificial intelligence at the University of Alcalá in Spain. When the local government of Castile-La Mancha stopped paying her stipend at the beginning of her third year, her world turned upside down. “These 2 years that I had left, I would have split them between Spain and the United States,” she says. “But now this is not possible.”

“It turns out that the sacrifice may be for nothing, because you may come, spend a few years here, and then they force you to leave.” -- Amaya Moro-Martín

Escudero-Martín is one of many young scientists in Spain whose careers are threatened by tight research budgets and bureaucratic delays. The economic crisis has severely affected many autonomous regions, and the federal government recently announced a public-sector hiring freeze and a cut of €600 million in the country's research budget. These measures are “imposed on a system that has already been weakened by several years of austerity,” says Amaya Moro-Martín, a spokesperson of the researchers’ organization Investigación Digna. “This will imply the loss of not only one generation of scientists but of several generations of scientists in Spain.”

Stopped in their Ph.D. tracks

It is difficult to know just how widespread the problem is, but across Spain several hundred Ph.D. students are caught up in a messy web of decreasing funding and increasing bureaucracy.

Among the most difficult cases are some 20 young researchers who have lost their stipends in the middle of their Ph.D. research -- including Escudero-Martín and five other Ph.D. students whose stipends were paid by the region of Castile-La Mancha and the European Union. Escudero-Martín and her fellow Ph.D. students must wait for an official call from the local government before their 2-year scholarship becomes a 2-year working contract with full employment benefits. But the call, which was due out in spring 2011, still hasn't come.

At press time, the local government had not returned calls to Science Careers. According to Escudero-Martín, the local government is saying that “the call is going to be made, that they do not know when because this is due to the economic situation.”

While she was in the United States last year, Escudero-Martín was able to get by on a travel grant she received from her Spanish university and personal savings. Since returning to Spain, she has managed to continue her research. “In my university, in spite of the circumstances, they are letting me gain access to my computer, my equipment, so I keep coming every day.” But she isn't allowed to teach, and she isn't getting paid.

CREDIT: Yolanda Escudero-Martín
Yolanda Escudero-Martín

Not all the problems are with local governments. Earlier this week, the Federation of Young Investigators (FJI/Precarios) said in a public statement that “the last call for grants for the Training of University Faculty (FPU), the most important and competitive grants for the realization of a doctorate in our country, is accumulating delays and errors a lot more serious than usual.” In October 2011, the former Ministry of Education published a provisional list of 950 candidates selected for its 2010 FPU call. A final list -- with 107 fewer candidates -- was issued on 30 November. The candidates left off the final list were asked to provide additional information. They are still waiting to hear back, FJI/Precarios said. Some of them have been working on their doctoral projects for as long as 2 years, without support.

In another recent statement, FJI/Precarios pointed to delays in issuing the final list of candidates selected for mobility grants as part of the Program for the Training of Research Staff (FPI). The new Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness is now handling the FPI program. Some of the provisional candidates have gone ahead with their plans, paying their own way, but many others cannot afford to do so, FJI/Precarios said.

In an interview with Science Careers, FJI/Precarios spokesperson Ester Artells attributes the delays to the change of government and funding cuts. “Before the elections, the launch of calls and announcement of call outcomes grinded to a halt,” she says. While the new government gets established, "investigators are waiting for decisions to be made,” adds Artells, a Spanish postdoc working at the Mediterranean Institute of Marine and Terrestrial Biodiversity and Ecology and the European Center for Research and Teaching in Environment Geosciences in Marseille, France. “We don’t know whether these are finally going to be announced.”

CREDIT: Ester Artells
Ester Artells

No permanent position

A month earlier, it was the National Association of Ramón y Cajal Investigators (ANIRC) that was raising the alarm. Launched by the Spanish government in 2001, the Ramón y Cajal (RyC) program lured many expatriated postdocs back to Spain with what closely resembled a tenure-track offer: a 5-year contract with a university professor’s salary, research independence, and the possibility of a permanent position. But the permanent positions that are supposed to come at the end of the track depend on the availability of funds. According to ANIRC, “Ramón y Cajal researchers are finding enormous difficulties to continue their research work in Spain due to the lack of continuity in their contracts.”

ANIRC believes those hardships are about to become worse. A year ago, ANIRC estimated that some 185 RyC researchers who finished their contracts in 2009, 2010, and 2011 were still looking for a permanent position. “To that you need to add 250 researchers … whose contracts will start expiring at the end of this year,” says Moro-Martín, who is a Ramón y Cajal researcher at the Center for Astrobiology near Madrid. In 2010, at the Spanish National Research Council, (CSIC) just 26 positions were created; in 2011, the number of new positions was 30. And in December, the Spanish government announced that no new positions will be created this year in public research bodies, including CSIC. Positions vacated by retirement will not be filled.

The employment situation in universities, which mainly depend on support from local governments, is not yet clear, but they too are faced with very tight budgets.

“The future … of many scientists with a notable and internationally recognized professional trajectory is full of uncertainty,” ANIRC wrote in its public statement. “You sacrifice many things for trying to do science in your own country, thinking that … you’ll get a permanent position and then you can start trying to improve things from the inside,” Moro-Martín says. “But it turns out that the sacrifice may be for nothing, because you may come, spend a few years here, and then they force you to leave.”

CREDIT: Alvaro Moro
Amaya Moro-Martín


The Spanish government's announcement that the 2012 national research budget would be €600 million smaller than it was in 2011 came in December. Details will be announced this month; meanwhile, Spain's scientific community is holding its breath. Of particular concern to young scientists is a possible decline in funding for research groups, which would affect yet another category of early-career researchers: postdocs.

Already, new Ph.D. graduates are having “an increasingly difficult time in finding their first postdoctoral position because the grants have less money,” Moro-Martín says. “The problem is that, unlike in countries [like] Germany, where you have a private sector that can absorb all these graduates, [in Spain] companies don’t know what to do with Ph.D.s.”

In an e-mail to Science Careers, Carmen Vela Olmo, the secretary of state for investigation, development, and innovation, tried to reassure early-career scientists. In the current complex economic context, she writes, cuts are inevitable but “we are working to minimize the damage.”

“I want to reiterate that human resources in research represents a priority for this government,” she writes. Her department has just issued this year’s call for doctoral FPI grants with a budget that is similar to last year's, and programs dedicated to helping integrate young scientists into the Spanish system -- such as the Ramón y Cajal contracts and incentives for universities to offer permanent positions -- will continue. “Moreover, jointly with the Ramón y Cajal investigators, we are going to look for alternative solutions," she writes, such as promoting opportunities in R&D departments in companies.

But some young scientists can't wait. Before returning to Spain in December, Escudero-Martín asked her U.S. supervisor David Smith to take her on long-term. Her only alternative, if she were to stay in Spain, would be to take an industry IT job and finish her Ph.D. on her own time, she says. She has now secured funding from the Universities Space Research Association and NASA Ames to continue her Ph.D. in the United States. She’s returning to Moffett Field next week.

Escudero-Martín is sorry that she has to leave her country. So is Artells, who took a postdoc in France last October. “My mum used to tell me, ‘Study, work, because this is pulling the country forward,’ ” says Artells, who has decided to stay in France. “When you think about the money the country spent for my education and that of so many other investigators … and that we cannot contribute to making the country move forward and get out of this crisis, to me it is a pity.”

Elisabeth Pain is Contributing Editor for Europe.

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