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Scientists test a satellite named Deimos-2 at the National Aerospace Technology Institute in Madrid in 2013. The institute gets a 34% increase in the government’s 2018 budget.

Javier Lizon/EFE/Newscom

Spanish research gets a nice budget boost—but scientists say it will be of little help

BARCELONA, SPAIN—The Spanish government has announced plans to raise the country’s overall public R&D budget by 8.3% in 2018, from €6.5 billion to €7 billion—the biggest hike since the economic crisis hit Spain in 2008. But science advocates aren’t exactly overjoyed. The raise sounds far better than it is because more than half of the government’s budget is reserved for R&D loans to companies, and more and more of the money for public research centers and scientists can’t be used because of byzantine accounting rules.

The proposed budget, presented in a bill on 3 April, represents “a small increase [for researchers], and this is good,” says Luis Serrano, director of the Center for Genomic Regulation (CRG) here. But “the big problem … is a whole series of things that hamper our ability to do our work with what we have.” Part of the Spanish scientific community will present an online petition signed by more than 277,000 people about the problems in science to parliament tomorrow.

The Spanish community has learned there is usually a catch when it comes to the budget. A preliminary analysis published yesterday by the Confederation of Spanish Scientific Societies (COSCE) here shows that out of the overall €7 billion announced, only €2.8 billion—up from last year’s €2.6 billion—will feed the public research system with funding for research centers, competitive calls for research projects and scholarships, and support to infrastructure. The remaining 60% will essentially be loans for industrial R&D, even though few companies ever apply for them. (Many scientists have decried the loans as a political maneuver aimed at inflating the budget.) In 2017, more than €3.2 billion in promised science funding, most of it loans, was left unspent, COSCE says.

Military research got a much higher boost than civilian research. Among the national research organizations, the biggest winner is the National Aerospace Technology Institute in Madrid, overseen by the defense ministry, which gets a 34% increase. Others do less well: The Research Centre for Energy, Environment, and Technology and the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) get only 3.6% and 1.0% more, respectively, whereas institutes for research in agriculture and mining see their budget slightly decrease. The budgets “are perpetuating a policy of asphyxia of the public research sector,” says Alicia Durán, a physics professor at the CSIC Institute of Ceramics and Glass in Madrid who is also a trade union representative.

And that’s not the only problem. Laws and regulations introduced in recent years to curb deficits and corruption in the public sector, in part under EU pressure, have led to Kafkaesque administrative and financial constraints for universities and research centers. For example, all public bodies that want to buy more than €15,000 in products or services must now issue tenders; for CRG that translates into more than 200 public calls a year, which is “administratively impossible,” Serrano says. National research organizations must also get approval from state auditors before spending money, even if it comes from outside Spain, which has severely delayed research projects and recruitment. “We have reached a situation of practical paralysis of centers and installations that, even when they have the resources, are not able to spend them,” Durán says.

Last month, COSCE and several other organizations went to parliament to present a series of demands; tomorrow, the newly founded Spanish Association for the Advancement of Science, the Federation of Young Investigators, and several grassroots associations will present lawmakers with a petition launched by Durán and others in February that decries the “abandoning of science.” They will ask for research funding to go back to precrisis levels by 2020 and a relaxation of the accounting rules.

Whether the budget bill, set for a vote in late May, will win a parliamentary majority is unclear. The ruling Popular Party doesn’t have enough seats and will need to find additional votes. That also offers chances, because other parties are more aware of the importance of science, says COSCE President Nazario Martín. In 2013, protesting scientists had to tape their letter to the gates of the ministry overseeing science; that they’re now able to hand it over signifies “a much more responsible attitude from the political class,” Martín says. The time to for Spain to become a knowledge-based economy is “now or never,” Martín says.