Published online 2 December 2008 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2008.1269

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Spain in the dock over research visas

Failure to cut red tape for foreign scientists prompts legal action by the European Union.

Scientist looking down microscopeSpain's immigration procedures — still too bureaucratic for scientists.Punchstock

The European Commission is taking Spain to the European Court of Justice for failing to enact into national law the 2005 European Union (EU) directive on scientific visas. The directive aims to make it easier for researchers from outside the EU to work in an EU country and bring their families with them.

The United Kingdom and Denmark opted out of the directive, leaving Spain and Cyprus as the only member states bound by the directive that have yet to implement it.

Spain's current immigration procedures are laborious and time-consuming, with visa applications sometimes taking months to process. The researchers' visa would speed up the procedure and also allow scientists to attend meetings or conferences in EU states that have signed the Schengen Agreement, which abolishes border controls between participating countries. Researchers would also not have to leave their host nation to renew their visas.

Immobilized

Leonardo Acho, an electronics engineer from Mexico, is all too familiar with the problems of the current system. In February 2008, he was hired as a visiting professor by the Technical University of Catalonia in Barcelona. But during the visa application process, the Spanish authorities told him that they would not be able to grant residency permits for his whole family because the salary he was being offered was insufficient.

As a result, Acho was only able to apply on behalf of his wife and younger son. His older son, now studying at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, is living in Spain on the three-month tourist visa granted to Mexican citizens.

"From January on, the options I've been given for my son are either that he stays illegally in Spain or that he goes back to Mexico to renew his visa with no guarantees," Acho says. "If I had known that I was going to be separated from my family, I'd have thought twice about ever coming to Spain in the first place."

Coordinated by the Spanish Science and Technology Foundation (FECYT), regional mobility centres have been charged with helping non-EU researchers moving to the country. Esther Alsina, from the Catalan Foundation for Research and Innovation (FCRI) mobility centre, says they have identified a number of problems.

"Firstly, there is a lack of information in consulates for researchers," she says. "Secondly, salary requirements by immigration authorities are not consistent with the salary researchers actually receive, and thirdly, the visa application clearance process takes too long, sometimes months."

Wasted opportunity

Spain's failure to act is also affecting industry researchers. Satheesh Chinnapapagari, an Indian molecular biologist, started work for Bilbao-based genomics company Progenika Biopharma in June 2008.

After resigning from his post as a senior post-doctoral fellow at the University of Basel, Switzerland, in 2007, delays in obtaining his Spanish work permit forced him to go back to India, where he spent five months, until May 2008, unemployed and living on savings, waiting for his visa to arrive.

"Spain could be transformed into an attractive destination for highly skilled scientists of non-EU nationalities, if the visa procedures were less cumbersome," says Chinnapapagari.

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As an industry scientist, Chinnapapagari's salary is higher than that of an equivalent academic researcher. But he still needed help from the Basque province of Vizcaya's regional mobility centre to get his work permit. Spain's Ministry of Labour and Social Security operates a service to help companies hire highly qualified staff from outside the EU. But the programme, called the Unidad de Grandes Empresas or Big Businesses Unit, is not well known, and many companies are deterred by the red tape that needs to be negotiated before they can get help.

"Spain hasn't been able to transpose the European directive on scientific visas yet because in order to apply it, the current Spanish immigration law must first be changed," Montserrat Torné, director of the science ministry's International Cooperation Department told Nature News. "This is an organic law, and it's very difficult to introduce modifications to it." But Torné adds that the Spanish government now expects the new Immigration Law to come into effect before summer of next year. 

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