In the run-up to Spain's general election, public funding of research has made a rare foray into the headlines. Politicians from across the spectrum have voiced their support for the country's scientists, following the release of a ‘state pact for science’ endorsed by the Spanish Society of Molecular Biology and Biochemistry.

The document, signed by 11 of Spain's leading scientists, calls for a doubling of the proportion of gross domestic product spent on research and development by 2010. It demands a similar expansion of the country's scientific workforce.

Both major parties say that they back these moves. But will the victors in the 14 March poll make science a lasting priority? They should have every incentive to do so. A large reservoir of talent exists — young Spanish researchers are highly welcome guests at labs throughout Europe and North America. But lack of political interest and Spanish bureaucracy have prevented most of them from returning to contribute to Spain's development as a scientific power.

Spanish politicians should wake up to the role science can play in stimulating the economy. And they should look to emulate the few programmes and centres that point to a future in which Spanish science no longer punches below its weight.

Over the past three years, a programme named after Spain's first Nobel laureate, the neuroscientist Santiago Ramón y Cajal, has repatriated almost 2,000 of Spain's diaspora of postdocs. It should be expanded. But if this programme is to bear fruit, the returnees need to be given a working environment where openness, free movement of staff and stiff competition for funds are the norm. Unfortunately, this is not the case in Spanish academia.

In Madrid, however, the National Center for Cancer Research, or CNIO, a private foundation owned by the health ministry, has in just six years gained an international reputation that most of Spain's universities and institutes can only dream of. Bureaucracy is minimal, and scientists can be recruited at any time. In Barcelona, the regional Catalan government has set up institutes along similar lines. These successful experiments should be repeated on a much broader scale.