Spanish science reforms aim to make life easier for parents

Researchers welcome changes that should also make it easier to hire researchers and buy equipment.

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Pedro Duque attends the inauguration of the academic year at the University of Valencia, Spain, in September 2018.

Spain’s science minister, Pedro Duque, wants to cut bureaucracy that is holding scientists back. Credit: Jose Miguel Fernandez/NurPhoto via Getty

The Spanish government has passed reforms to the nation’s scientific system that will cut red tape and make life easier for researchers — especially parents.

Science minister and former astronaut Pedro Duque announced the reforms on 11 February, and he first issued them as a temporary measure before they were approved as permanent laws by parliament on 28 February.

The reforms make it easier for public research institutions to hire staff, and for scientists to buy equipment and return to a science career after taking a maternity or paternity leave.

They have been widely welcomed by the country’s scientists, but many say that further changes are needed to improve the research system which has been affected by years of low funding.

The Confederation of Spanish Scientific Societies (COSCE), which represents more than 40,000 Spanish scientists, says the science system is reeling from funding cuts and “unjustifiably bureaucratized administrative management”.

The scientific community has demanded the changes but they are largely cosmetic and insufficient to solve various deep, serious challenges facing Spanish science, says Pedro Jordano, an ecologist at the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) in Seville.

Procedures for hiring researchers — particularly postdocs and technicians — have been complicated and slow, says Jordano. These will now be simpler and quicker.

Institutes could also hire many early-career researchers only on temporary contracts and for the duration of their grants, usually of between one and four years. “It is impossible to do science with one-year contracts,” says Violeta Durán Laforet, a pharmacologist at the Complutense University of Madrid and vice-president of Spain’s Federation of Young Researchers. “For quality research, we have to have a system that makes conditions more attractive — so researchers don’t have to go searching for stability abroad.”

To remedy this, the updated rules will allow Spanish universities and scientific research institutes to hire more staff indefinitely, which should help provide better job stability, says Durán Laforet.

Another rule change cuts bureaucracy involved in buying laboratory equipment — a process that scientists say is confusing and lengthy, even when they already have the grant money to spend.

“Currently it takes a month to buy a new computer,” says Montserrat Vilà, a plant ecologist at CSIC. She notes that because of the complex rules, it recently took 20 emails involving 8 people, 10 phone calls and 5 different document submissions for her to buy a laptop computer that she had already budgeted for in her grant from the science ministry.

A right to return

The reforms also aim to make it easier for both men and women to return to their research career after taking paternity or maternity leave. Scientists, including Durán Laforet, say that implicit bias and discrimination against people who take such leave is common in Spain.

The new reforms formally prohibit public research institutions from penalizing those who take maternity or paternity leave when they apply for teaching and research positions.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-019-00649-1

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