The extreme anomaly that the covid pandemic has generated has extended to the financing of science in Spain with an unexpectedly positive result. The injection of funds from the European Union destined for Spain to resist the onslaught of the virus has allowed the Government to increase its total spending on science by 2021 by 1,200 million euros, a rise of 60% compared to 2020.
It would be the largest increase since 2000, the first year for which the Spanish R&D Observatory keeps records. The detail is that most of this increase – 1,100 million of the 1,200 total – is assigned to the funds of the Recovery, Transformation and Resilience Plan of the EU for Spain. This game goes entirely to the Ministry of Science led by Pedro Duque. According to sources in his department, 100% of that extra money are subsidies: there is not a single euro of credits with which until a year ago investment in science was falsely inflated, which meant that in 2018 not one was spent of every two euros allocated to research.
The avalanche of money from the EU – € 26 billion in subsidies for 2021 alone – has reshaped the draft general state budget for 2021, presented today and still pending parliamentary approval, until it is almost unrecognizable. This means that the total amount allocated to civil R & D & i, distributed among various ministries, is 11,483 million euros, 80% more than in 2020. But a good part of that item is funds dedicated to digitization, which include implementation of 5G and other issues assigned to the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Digital Transformation and that normally did not count as R + D + i. If from all this item the 4,752 million that the EU contributes are subtracted, the real rise in civil R & D & i proposed for 2021 is 5.5%.
Military R & D & I experienced an inverse increase: the Government intends to allocate an additional 182 million euros to this item, an increase of 26.8%. The EU contribution in this field would be nil.
The Higher Council for Scientific Research (CSIC), the main public research body in the country, increases its funding by 43% to 907 million, 148 million euros from European funds. The State Research Agency that is in charge of managing the main research projects in the country also grows by 29% and the Carlos III Health Institute, the main biomedical research organization, by almost 50%. Other public R&D organizations that had been hit hard in recent years by the crisis and bureaucratic obstacles received considerable increases, such as oceanography (62%), food technology (43%) and geological and mining ( 22%).
“This would be a record growth, there has never been a similar increase”, highlights Jorge Barrero, general director of the Cotec Foundation for Innovation. “Even so, it must be remembered that for now it is only a project that must be debated and approved in Congress, “he warns. He also points to another challenge: that a public science system accustomed for years to meager funding is able to efficiently absorb this injection of funds.” We are only going to have an opportunity like this and we must take good advantage of it. ” , summarizes Barrero.
“At a first glance, R + D + i spending shows a substantial increase compared to the budgets carried over into force; it is good news if this increase is consolidated in a constant and progressive way in the successive annual budgets “, says Perla Wahnón, president of the Spanish scientific societies.
“It is a very positive increase, it represents a qualitative change”, highlights Xosé Bustelo, president of the Spanish Association for Cancer Research (ASEICA). “But we must bear in mind that many of these funds come from abroad and we must think if when they stop arriving we will return to the situation as before,” he warns.
Today a long term strategy for science and innovation in Spain supported by nearly 50 scientific societies, companies and organizations in the field of R&D. The document has been promoted by ASEICA, the Spanish association of biotechnology companies Asebio and Somma, the organization that brings together the best research centers in the country. The document includes 20 measures that go beyond financing to reform the R&D system in Spain. One of his requests was that the budget for the national research plan, which is at the same levels as in 2007, increase its amount by 50% this year and another 50% the next, something that according to Bustelo this project of budgets “that remain in an increase of 21%”, he explains.
Many scientists explain that there are reforms beyond budgets that are crucial, because without them it will be difficult to spend the money. This is how Luis Serrano, president of Somma, explains it. “This increase in the budget is very good, but it is necessary to eliminate all the bureaucratic measures that currently prevent us from spending it,” he says. The Government approved in February 2019 a package of urgent measures to alleviate the obstacles, but according to Serrano, 80% of the Somma centers are still unable to apply these measures because the Ministry does not guarantee them “legal security.”
In addition to the budgets, the Government is promoting a national research pact to achieve a great consensus among the political forces so that Spain can get out of the European caboose in R & D & I and catch up with its environment. The Executive of Sánchez has sent this pact to scientific societies, rectors, employers, unions and up to 50 organizations in the sector to get their support. The next step will be to raise it with the autonomous communities and also take it to the Congress of Deputies to agree on it with the rest of the parties within the negotiation of the general state budgets.
The pact has been received with as much positivity as skepticism. The Government’s plan sets R&D growth targets based on GDP and that in the context of great economic uncertainty and forecasts of economic contraction caused by the pandemic. For Barrero, this is one of the weak points of the pact, of which he nevertheless favors. “It would be more reasonable to establish objectives using criteria that could be less sensitive to the economic situation, such as the level of public financing per inhabitant,” he explains.
“It is a very vague pact; Nobody is going to oppose it but clearly it lacks a lot of substance and it has to be filled with content ”, says Bustelo.