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Spanish Secretary of State for Science Promises to 'Do the Impossible'

From left to right. Carmen Vela Olmo serves in a conservative government despite her socialist sympathies.

Carmen Vela

BARCELONA, SPAIN—Spanish scientists generally think highly of the biochemist newly appointed to lead the country's science policy—but they're concerned that the government she serves in won't give science the place it deserves. Carmen Vela Olmo, 56, is an industry researcher and manager who has held a variety of high-profile positions. But scientists are doubtful she can stave off some €600 million in cuts in the budget for research, development, and innovation, announced by the Spanish government on 30 December.

The cuts are part of a package of measures put forward by the new government to reduce the nation's public deficit, details of which are expected with the presentation of the national budget before the end of March. A €600 million cut would mean a decrease from the 2011 budget by some 7%, says mathematician Carlos Andradas Heranz, the president of the Confederation of Scientific Societies of Spain (COSCE). Taking into consideration cuts in the previous years, "we now find ourselves in a financial landscape for R&D similar to 2005," says Andradas.

It didn't help that the new government has abolished the Ministry of Science and Innovation and made Vela a secretary of state under the umbrella of the new Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness, which some saw as a demotion and perhaps a bad omen for basic science. "One of the dangers we run now is that the innovative aspect is given … excessive weight, and that the source which innovation needs to come from, that is basic research and knowledge, is abandoned," says Juan Lerma, director of the Institute of Neurosciences in Alicante and president of the Spanish Society for Neuroscience.

Spanish scientists are holding their breath while waiting to hear which programs will be affected by the cuts. They were somewhat reassured by the annual call for the government's flagship funding program for fundamental research on 31 December; that program was allocated €325 million in grants and €105 million in loans, the same as last year. But it remains to be seen whether the entire amount will be distributed, Andradas says.

Scientists also worry that Spain's national research centers, which have absorbed a significant part of recent funding cuts, will be hit again. The Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), for example, has already seen delays and cancellations in some programs, says Lerma, whose own institute is a joint initiative between the CSIC and the Miguel Hernández University of Elche. The risk is that the national centers will be slowly strangled, Andradas says.

The situation is particularly worrying for young researchers, Andradas adds. Last week, the Spanish Federation of Young Investigators warned that the funding cuts would cause early-career researchers to "swell the ranks of the unemployed or emigrate in … [a] brain drain." The package announced on 30 December also includes a freeze on new researcher positions at universities and national research centers.

Vela sought to reassure scientists when she talked to the press after taking office on 3 January. She tried to dispel fears that some CSIC centers would be closed; as for the financial situation, "the panorama is difficult … [but] we are going to do the impossible so that our budgets and our activities are maintained and increased," Europa Press reported her as saying.

Vela has come under fire from the far right in Spain because she supported the socialist candidate in the last two general elections, as well as a new abortion law enacted by the previous government. An online petition called Sin Carmen Vela, por favor ("Without Carmen Vela, please") attacks Vela as an "ideological militant" and asks Economy Minister Luis de Guindos to fire her. "Decisions such as whether to experiment with human embryos will be in her hands," the text warns.

But so far, the scientific community has given her the visto bueno ("OK"). She "seems to us a very capable person, and in this sense she's got all our trust from the start," says Andradas. COSCE has issued a statement supporting Vela. Vela herself has said that "science has no political color." She pledged to dedicate herself to ensuring that the new Spanish Law for Science, Technology, and Innovation—which was adopted by consensus before the elections and took effect early December—is carried out. The law promised scientists the establishment of a new national funding agency.

Vela obtained a master's degree in biochemistry from the Complutense University of Madrid; shortly after, in 1982, she joined Ingenasa, a small biotech company for animal health in Madrid, where she later became managing director. She has a dozen patents to her name and has held several influential positions, including the presidencies of the Spanish Society of Biotechnology and the Association of Women Investigators and Technologists.

Her experience in both research and industry is particularly valuable, says Andradas. Her predecessor, former science and innovation minister Cristina Garmendia, had a similar profile and worked hard to make knowledge and innovation a cornerstone of economic development in Spain.

Meanwhile, many Spanish scientists are pleading for a creative new measure to fill the looming gaps in the science budget. On 3 January, Francisco Hernández, a grad student in neuroscience at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, suggested on his blog that the Spanish should be able to allocate 0.7% of their tax euros directly to science by checking a box on their tax forms. An online petition set up to support the idea has already drawn more than 100,000 names.