Correspondence

Nature 453, 26-27 (1 May 2008) | doi:10.1038/453026c; Published online 30 April 2008

Spain should implement a model that's known to work

Rodrigo J. Carbajo1, José Luis Neira2 & Rosa Farràs1

  1. Laboratorio de Biología Estructural, Centro de Investigación Príncipe Felipe, Avenida Autopista del Saler 16, 46012 Valencia, Spain
  2. Instituto de Biología Molecular y Celular, Edificio Torregaitán, Universidad Miguel Hernández, Avenida del Ferrocarril s/n, 03202 Elche, Alicante, Spain

Sir

Your Editorial about the current state of Spanish science (Nature 451, 1029; 2008) suggests that 'A new Silver Age' is possible. Although Spain's research investment, at 1.1% of gross domestic product, is still below the European average (1.8%), the recent boost in the science budget has funded plans such as the Ramón y Cajal programme, intended to recover young scientists from abroad, and the creation of independent research institutes. But unless there are radical policy changes, the increased funding will not be sufficient to reduce the science chasm between Spain and other countries.

Blatant 'inbreeding' practices still thrive. Some 90% of Spanish scientists continue to occupy positions at the institutions where they obtained their PhDs, a situation that hinders the mobility and exchange of ideas that underpin strong science (see Nature 410, 14; 2001; Nature 411, 132; 2001). The Popular (conservative) Party, which governed from 1996 to 2004, brought in a national committee to replace the local committees that had previously been responsible for appointments. Although this maintained high standards for selection, it has failed to reduce academic endogamy. And although vacancies at most institutions are now publicized, this usually happens only after an in-house candidate has been unofficially chosen for the job.

A proposal by the current socialist government allows national evaluation of a candidate exclusively on the grounds of a detailed CV. However, that will still not solve the problem, as universities and research centres — which retain control of the final selection process — continue to favour their own candidates. Many of the Spanish regional governments have set up local evaluation agencies, often with different criteria: a positive report is mandatory when applying for a position in that particular region.

An even more flagrant practice favours candidates who are fluent in the local language, in addition to Castilian, irrespective of their scientific merits. This discriminates against non-local and foreign scientists trying to build a career in Spain. This is common practice and is in violation of the European Charter for Researchers (http://tinyurl.com/42zbdg).

Spanish policy-makers should stop reinventing the wheel in every four-year term. Instead, they should implement models that have worked for decades in countries with a long-standing tradition in science, such as the Max Planck institutes in Germany or the Medical Research Council in the United Kingdom.

Increased funding must be accompanied by changes that, so far, Spanish politicians have ignored or failed to tackle.

The creation of a ministry of science and innovation and the appointment of a respected scientist, Cristina Garmendia, to head it, give us hope for a change in direction.

Unless the necessary changes are implemented, the careers of Spanish scientists, particularly the younger ones, cannot flourish.