In defence of Spanish R&D spending

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Your editorial on the 2001 Spanish budget for science and technology (Nature 407, 659; 2000) contains some claims that are far from the real facts. This article, written in sensationalist language, has created much confusion in the Spanish press and in the scientific community, where a claim from Nature — thanks to its well-deserved scientific reputation — is taken as the truth.

The editorial mentions the Spanish government's “secrecy” and says I was “reluctantly forced to admit that more than 50% of our 2001 R&D budget will be devoted to military expense”. First, there is no secrecy or reluctance. The budget figures —including military research expenditures — are in the public domain, and I have explained them in the Congress, in the Senate and in press conferences.

Second, I never said that over half of our R&D budget is spent on defence, as this is simply not true.

It is misleading to mix expenditures on grants in with government loans — money which will one day be returned. Spain's 2001 budget for research and technological programmes will be managed mostly (85.5%) by the new Spanish Ministry of Science and Technology (MST) — only 9.3% will be controlled by the Ministry of Defence. In the MST, the projected research budget, excluding loans, is 1,588 million euros, of this exactly zero will be used in defence programmes. Defence expenditures appear only under our government loans — at zero interest — programmes. Here the total is 2,563 million euros, of which 1,447 million euros can be associated with technological investments in defence. These numbers are large in relation to funds allocated to grants, but the implied subsidy is only in the interest-rate differential (and loan maturation) and not the total amount. Defence expenses within our ministry budget will grow at 5.7%, whereas basic research programmes will grow by 10.1%.

One could simply spend less on R&D defence programmes to spend more elsewhere. This is how things were done in the past. However, the “elsewhere” was geographical, as defence technology was imported from abroad. This situation has changed radically over the past few years. To a large extent, thanks to the support of R&D defence programmes, Spain now has an innovative, competitive and fast-growing aeronautics industry that has created new products and jobs.

There are, however, other aspects of the budget that are new. This is the first year since Spain regained democracy that there is no budget deficit. Nevertheless, R&D expenditures are growing substantially above the average government expenditures of 4.5%. Priority is given to increasing the number of research positions and long-term contracts (more than 800 in 2001, to achieve the 2,000 goal by 2003). Programmes devoted to human resources are planned to grow at 18%, and a further plan will be launched to attract Spanish researchers back from abroad.

One would have expected that Nature, having been concerned about these issues in the past, would have emphasized these priorities and innovations.

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