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Research jobs were lost at the Solar Platform of Almería in Spain because stifling new accounting rules blocked funds.

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Stifling accounting rules threaten jobs and science at Spanish institutes

Stifling government accounting rules are threatening scientific projects and jobs at several Spanish research bodies. Scientists at both the Spanish Oceanography Institute (IEO), headquartered in Madrid, and the Solar Platform of Almería (PSA), a large solar research center in the Tabernas Desert, have expressed concern about what they see as senseless red tape that holds up spending.

Some 340 staff at IEO—60% of the total—sent a manifesto to the press last week to warn that the center is "collapsing." The problems compound the plight of Spanish science, which suffered from budget cuts during the country's recent economic woes and faces a proliferating bureaucracy aimed at controlling spending.

IEO's troubles stem partly from rules that apply to five public research bodies, known as OPIs in Spanish, with a total of 1700 researchers. Under accounting regulations introduced by the current conservative government in 2014, a team of six state auditors must preapprove every purchase at IEO, which has nine research centers across the country and five research ships. As a result, projects and recruitment have been severely delayed and IEO spent only half of its budget last year, down from 90% in 2013, according to the manifesto.

Researchers have trouble recruiting staff or buying equipment even if they receive funding from outside Spain, says Manuel Ruiz Villarreal, a physicist at IEO's A Coruña branch and the principal investigator of four projects funded by the European Union, including an effort to predict the health risks of toxic algal blooms. Ruiz Villarreal says the auditing system, known as "prior intervention," should be lifted for projects that receive external funding and are already subject to checks after the money is spent.

Other OPIs must adhere to similar rules, but the manifesto says the situation is worst at IEO, which signatories say reveals a "structural problem" in the institute's management. "We've been raising the alarm for several years," Ruiz Villarreal says. "As a researcher, I can't go to the minister of the treasury myself. Our management has to tackle this."

"It's true we are having difficulties," admits IEO Director Eduardo Balguerías Guerra, who says the institute needs time to adapt to the rules but denies that its activities are paralyzed. "All the OPIs and the secretary of state are working very hard to solve these problems," he says. Until Spain's 2018 budgets are approved, additional restrictions will continue to exacerbate the difficulties, Balguerías Guerra says. But after that, he thinks the situation will improve.

Carmen Vela, state secretary in charge of research, development, and innovation, has admitted that IEO had "problems in its day-to-day management" and "had a bad [budget] execution." Vela told members of the Spanish congress's economy, industry, and competitiveness committee on 14 March that the institute's low spending was due to a large building project that did not get approval last year. She also conceded that the "prior intervention" system has created difficulties for the OPIs and said she is taking steps to minimize damage. But some observers say a patchwork of emergency measures won't provide a lasting solution.

PSA, the solar energy center, is part of an OPI called the Center for Energy, Environment, and Technology, which has also suffered from a 2016 regulation stipulating that funds received before September must be spent before the end of that same year. PSA scientists say this rule makes no sense when a grant is meant to be spread across several years, as many EU grants are. In the first 6 weeks of this year, PSA lost 14 research jobs out of a total of 40 because funds received earlier were blocked and the center couldn't advertise the posts, says Sixto Malato, a scientist in PSA's research unit for the solar treatment of water. He stepped down from his role as PSA director last November to protest the rules.

A total of €6 million, the entirety of PSA's research budget, is blocked and will have to be gradually returned to the European Commission with interest if the rules are not reversed, Malato says. "The government has to recognize their mistake," he says. "We're not asking for funds, we're asking [the treasury] to let us use external funds that will be spent in Spain and create jobs in Spain."