Published online 9 February 2010 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2010.57

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Spain's vision for science

Science minister Cristina Garmendia outlines her plans for research across Europe, and at home.

Cristina GarmendiaSpain's Science and Innovation Minister Cristina Garmendia is pushing for more integration of research across Europe.Andrea Comas/REUTERS

Cristina Garmendia is fighting a campaign on two fronts. As head of the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation, she is faced with supporting research at a time of economic crisis and tight budgets (see 'No turning back'). Since Spain took up its six-month presidency of the European Union (EU) on 1 January, however, she also has the opportunity to shape policy on research and innovation beyond national borders.

The latest move in this direction is the Donostia Declaration, unveiled by Garmendia on 8 February after a meeting between European ministers in the Basque city of Donostia-San Sebastián. The declaration reaffirms that stronger scientific collaboration across the EU is a key part of member states' efforts to recover from the economic downturn, and crucial to addressing challenges such as healthcare, energy and climate change.

Garmendia, a molecular biologist, is the first person to head Spain's Ministry of Science and Innovation, created in 2008. Before entering politics she was a successful biotech entrepreneur and the president of Asebio, the Spanish association of biotech companies.

In an exclusive interview with Nature, Garmendia outlined her plans to use the Spanish presidency to make European science more integrated, while tackling research challenges on the home front.

European project

One of Garmendia's priorities is to consolidate the long-touted but largely unrealized dream of having a coherent European Research Area, where researchers and their funding can move much more easily between different countries (see 'The future of European research').

Garmendia says that she wants "to eliminate the obstacles to researchers' mobility, so they can travel with their pensions and social security rights. Those are not only science policies, but also job policies". In March, she says, a delegation of EU science ministers will meet work and social affair ministers to discuss the special mobility needs of the scientific community.

Another priority, Garmendia explains, is to reform the procedure for deciding where to site big scientific infrastructure projects. Such billion-euro projects attract scientific talent and stimulate the local economy, and countries bid hard to host them.

But these decisions often involve prolonged negotiations, with one country agreeing to support another's bid, or dropping out of the competition in return for benefits in kind, until a winner eventually emerges.

"We've experienced the difficulties of having to do country-to-country bilateral negotiations," Garmendia says. "We need to agree on the game rules." In June 2009, for example, Spain withdrew its bid to host the European Spallation Source (ESS), which will produce neutrons for a variety of research purposes, and threw its support behind Sweden's ESS plan. Spain is now bidding to host the European Extremely Large Telescope at the Roque de los Muchachos observatory in the Canary Islands.

A new model

In Spain, Garmendia is working to reform the country's scientific funding and employment structures. A new bill (known as the Science Law) aims to create a funding body, autonomous from the government, to manage competitive grants. "The new granting structure will be on a par with the systems in the most advanced countries in Europe," she promises. Despite several delays, "the [science] bill should be in the Parliament by the middle of February", says Garmendia.

The law would also add a tenure-track system to Spain's scientific career structure, where postdoctoral positions can lead to a permanent contract. It should help scientists to follow a career that will be "stable, predictable and based on merit", says Garmendia.

Most scientists in universities and traditional public research institutions are currently classed as civil servants, giving them jobs for life and making it difficult to remove unproductive scientists. Most new positions can only be created by the Ministry of Science and Innovation itself. And as only Spanish citizens can apply for civil service jobs, it is difficult to attract foreign talent.

Garmendia plans to make it easier for universities to hire top scientists, with the introduction of a new fast-track system called "Investigador Distinguido" (Distinguished Researcher).

Region such as Catalonia and the Basque Country already have very successful schemes along the same lines, Garmendia says. For example, the Catalan programme has awarded 40% of its grants to foreigners. The economist Andreu Mas-Colell, who established this programme and is now secretary general of the European Research Council, agrees that the concept could work across Spain.

The deepest cuts

One of Garmendia's toughest moments came in September 2009, in the midst of Spain's deepest economic crisis in recent history. The government's draft budget for 2010 proposed major cuts to the funding controlled by the science ministry. But, after parliamentary discussions, those cuts are now substantially smaller.

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Research centres that belong to the National Scientific Research Council (CSIC), the country's largest public research organization, will be affected most. The CSIC will see an 8.3% fall in its 2010 budget, which comes direct from the ministry.

"The science system can still function for one more year," says Luis Sanz-Menéndez, director of CSIC Institute of Public Goods and Policies in Madrid. A further cut in 2011, he says, would make it difficult to finance new calls for grants, postdocs and fellowships.

But Garmendia is confident that science will see renewed investment in the 2011 budget. "The Spanish government knows very well the importance of R&D for the progress of the economy," she says. 

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