Spanish Parliament buildings

The Spanish parliament in Madrid, where researchers delivered a petition about science this week. Credit: Geography Photos/UIG/Getty

Leading Spanish scientific organizations delivered a petition signed by more than 277,000 people to the national parliament in Madrid on 11 April, calling on the government to stop the “progressive abandonment of science in Spain” caused by budget cuts. The petition is the largest ever on a science-policy subject in Spain.

Its key promoters urge the Spanish government to, by 2020, steadily return investment in science to the record level achieved in 2009 — almost €10 billion (US$12.3 billion). Between 2009, when the global financial crisis hit, and 2013, the country’s government science budget plunged by 39%, to about €5.9 billion.

“Science, like health and education, is deeply supported by society: we need a state pact for science to reflect that,” says Alicia Durán, a physicist at the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) who supports the petition and was part of the group who delivered it to parliament. Durán was accompanied by more than 60 others, including members of the Spanish Royal Academy of Sciences and the CSIC.

A group of researchers posted the petition online in February. Its backers include the Federation of Young Researchers, the Network of Spanish Researchers Abroad and the two largest Spanish workers’ unions.

The petition’s delivery to parliament comes a week after Spanish scientists received a glimmer of good news. On 3 April, the government submitted a draft budget for 2018, which included an 8.3% boost for science funding over 2017’s allocation. If approved by parliament, the increase would be the biggest in a decade and take the budget to around €7 billion. Since 2013, government science funding had seen only minimal increases (see ‘Spain's science woes’), and the percentage of gross domestic product invested in science from public and private sources fell from 1.4% in 2010 to 1.19% in 2016.

“We welcome the [2018] increase. It’s an essential step, but just the first one,” says Nazario Martín, a chemist at the Complutense University of Madrid and president of the Confederation of Spanish Scientific Societies (COSCE), which does not formally support the petition. “At this rate, and taking into account inflation, we would need another decade to go back to 2009’s levels,” adds Martín.

The draft budget also includes regulations aimed at easing hiring restrictions at public research institutions, which have left many researchers employed on temporary contracts. Other regulations aim to even out the salaries of scientists across public institutions, and to ease the bureaucracy around research expenses. For instance, researchers in public institutions have to justify in advance any single expenditure over €15,000.

Despite the planned funding hike, some scientists still see problems. For the past several years, much of the science-budget packages have been made up of industry loans. And many scientists and organizations, including COSCE, have accused the Spanish government of using this method to artificially inflate science funding. The loan money is usually offered to companies for applied-research projects but must be returned, although under favourable interest conditions. However, a substantial part of the loans usually goes unrequested and remains unspent.

In previous years, the government has compensated for cuts to research by increasing the loan portion of the budget, rather than boosting the standard funding aimed at public institutions, says COSCE. But this year, the 8.3% increase would apply almost equally to the standard funding and the loans, according to an analysis of the budget plan released by COSCE this week. Still, loans would make up about 60% of the overall science budget.

The COSCE analysis suggests that standard basic-science funding would increase by €226 million, to €2.8 billion. “We estimate that €525 million per year is needed to reach 2009’s level in 2020,” she says.

Political tug of war

There’s no guarantee that the budget will be approved in its current form. Spain’s governing conservative People’s Party does not hold an absolute majority in the parliament. The Basque Nationalist Party, which provided the key votes to approve last year’s budget, has said that its approval comes with the condition that the political crisis in Catalonia is resolved.

But Durán is hopeful that the petition will effect some change. After delivering the petition, the organizers set up an event in the parliament building that was attended by supporters and members from the parliament’s science commission. Members of parliament across the political spectrum said that they would be prepared to sign an amendment to the budget protecting science elements they all agree on — such as improving funding and working conditions and reducing bureaucracy for scientists — from negotiations about other aspects of the budget, says Durán. “Now, we expect that they fulfil this promise,” she says.

Martín agrees that the political situation provides a shot at change. “Since there is no party with absolute majority, they are forced to reach agreements,” he says. “It’s a unique opportunity for a state pact.”

In the meantime, Spain is working with a budget extended from 2017. The finance minister has forbidden public administrations from spending more than 50% of this ‘deferred’ budget, until the new one has been approved. As a result, none of the main calls for basic-research grants for 2018 had been issued.

In a written statement, Spain’s secretary of state for science, Carmen Vela, told Nature: “We should at least achieve a commitment from all parties that the science budget should always increase, regardless of the governing party. We have not achieved this agreement yet, but we will continue to work on it.”