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Bigger-Than-Expected Budget Cuts Hit Spanish Scientists

Spanish scientists' hopes that the long-delayed 2012 national budget would spare their research funding were quashed today as the government announced a 25% funding cut compared to last year.

According to details of the budget bill revealed this morning, Spain's national government will spend a total of about €6.39 billion on scientific investigation, development, and innovation in 2012. (Regional governments also fund research in the country.) Of this money, €5.63 billion will be dedicated to civil research, which represents a 25.6% decrease compared to the €7.58 billion allocated in 2011. The remaining €758 million will be spent on military research, which will see a 24.9% decrease from just above €1 billion in 2011.

The cuts are severe, but they are not a big surprise to the scientific community. Back in December, the government announced a package of measures that anticipated a €600 million cut in the 2012 research budget. The scientific community has since been lobbying to limit further cuts. An open letter given to the Spanish government and parliament on 27 March by the Confederation of Spanish Scientific Societies (COSCE), the Conference of Spanish University Chancellors, the grassroots organization Investigación Digna, the Federation of Young Investigators, and major trade unions gathered more than 26,000 individual signatures. At the time, the estimated cut on the table was €744 million, and even then, scientists warned in the letter that it "would cause grave long-term damage to the already weakened Spanish research system, both to its infrastructure and human resources."

The even larger cuts announced today disappointed some Spanish researchers, as the decrease in science money is larger than the average drop in funding across all the ministries, which is around 17%. "It is true that the conditions are very difficult," says José Molero Zayas, an applied economist at Complutense University in Madrid, who is in charge of the analysis of the research and development budget for COSCE. "No one was expecting that there would be a spectacular rise, but we would have liked to see a less pronounced decrease … to demonstrate a political will to give more priority to investigation, development, and innovation."

Spain's scientific community is also concerned that not all of the promised research money will actually materialize. "In other years there have been important parts of the budget that later did not get executed," Molero says. For example, one peculiarity of the Spanish budget for science is that more than half of the money is usually allocated under the form of loans to companies, and much of it never makes it out of the state coffers. This year, €3.17 billion of the €5.63 billion for civil research are to be given out as loans. That not of all the public money for science is eventually put to use "should be avoided at all costs" this year, Molero says.

What makes Spain's situation all the more disturbing to its scientific community is that this is the third year in a row that science has seen a severe setback in its funding. "You just can't wait for 5 years to investigate what others are already investigating, otherwise you are simply left out of the scientific and technological race already," Molero says. Today's budget announcement puts science "to the same level of money" as in 2005, he adds. "And this questions the future."

"We hope that figures can be corrected in the process of amendments" in parliament, COSCE president and mathematician at Complutense University Carlos Andradas Heranz writes in an e-mail to Science Insider. "In fact last week the [opposing party] presented a [proposal] in order to consider R&D as a strategic objective and work towards a global agreement to save R&D," Andradas adds. "But the actual numbers do not invite to be optimistic."