Radiography of science in Spain


The science in Spain get good results, in terms of quantity and quality, despite the little investment dedicated to innovation and development compared to the rest of developed countries. With three times less spending on R&D than South Korea, one of the great innovative powers on the planet and with a population similar to that of Spain, scientists working in Spain manage to publish more and with a greater impact than South Koreans, if well they are very far from them in the transfer of that knowledge, measured by the generation of patents.

This is reflected by the different parameters compiled by to draw the X-ray of a key sector for the economy. Science is always referred to when speaking of the change in the production model and the advances in productivity that later result in greater well-being, but at the same time, scientists work under the shadow of job insecurity and job uncertainty, just as the researchers themselves report. These are the fundamental data of scientific research in Spain.

Spending well below that of competing countries

The spending on internal R&D reached a new record in Spain in 2020, according to the most recent data from the Statistics on R&D activities published at the end of last year by the National Institute of Statistics. They were 15,768.13 million euros, 11.1% more than a decade ago, after overcoming the cuts caused by the Great Recession, of which more than half, 55%, come from business investment, compared to 45% contributed by the Public Administration and universities.

In relation to gross domestic product (GDP), was equivalent to 1.41%, very below the European Union average, which stands at 2.32%. Spain spends less on innovation and development than neighboring countries such as Italy and the United Kingdom, much less than the United States and Germany and far behind the leaders in scientific investment, Israel and South Korea, which are close to 5% with an economic and population size similar to Spanish.

“We are very far from the European Union average and, although we want to reach it in 2030, I think it will not be possible. We would settle for reaching 2%”, he laments Miguel Jordán, professor at the Miguel Hernández University and president of the Spanish Association of Scientists, who points out that, in addition to the scarcity of resources, there are great bureaucratic obstacles to using them: “We need greater flexibility, we are not capable of executing the budget between contracting and inspection processes. The money does not arrive on time, we need much simpler mechanisms “, Explain.

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“Investment is completely decisive and, in Spain, absolutely ridiculous, so far behind the countries around us that it is a national shame,” he denounces Carmen Fenoll, professor at the University of Castilla-La Mancha and president of the Association of Women Researchers and Technologists. “Research is still not a strategic field for Spanish politics and is considered something secondary, an ornament that is made if there is money left over,” he says, while stressing the “misery” with which most researchers work, especially the youngest.

Precariousness stalks the almost 150,000 researchers

In Spain, according to the INE, in 2020 there were more than 231,000 people in full-time equivalent, of which more than 145,000 were researchers and the rest, other staff, which ranges from administrative to laboratory assistants. It is a growing labor force, 7.7% more than a decade ago, although with difficulties in consolidating a career characterized by instability.

“Most of the researchers, until they reach a permanent position, go through precarious contracts, in research projects of very short duration, from two to four years,” indicates Jordán, who recalls that this drives many scientists to go abroad. Fenoll speaks of a “desperate situation” for young researchers under 40 years of age: “For them it is a tragedy, for the system it is a bestial waste”, since the cost of training scientists is very high.

The womenincreasingly present in research -already almost 40% of all researchers-They also suffer from other difficulties, such as obstacles to accessing higher positions. “As the research career advances, women disappear. At the beginning, in terms of researchers, there is almost parity, but in the postdoctoral period we already drop to 44% and at the highest level, the positions of professor and research professor, we did not reach 25%”, emphasizes Fenoll, who denounces that the evolution in this sense is very slow.

To that is added that the presence of women is very large in some areas, such as biomedicine or health sciences, where they gradually approach parity, while in others their presence is still much lower than that of men. “In artificial intelligence, computer science, engineering… The increase in women is very small and has even decreased in recent years,” warns Fenoll.

Many scientific publications, few patents

Despite all the difficulties, Spanish scientists are capable of obtaining good results, as revealed by the volume of scientific publications: in 2020 the 105,431, for the first time above the threshold of one hundred thousand and 45% more than a decade ago. In this way, Spain was that year the eleventh country with the most scientific publications in the world and, if the last ten years are taken into account, it is the tenth in the world, well above its position in terms of investment in R&D.

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“Scientific production in Spain is surprising, the number of works published and each time in better journals. With very few resources we do many miracles,” Jordán points out. “It is incredible that we can be where we are in number and quality of publications,” agrees Fenoll, who highlights that it is a source of pride for scientists and for the country as a whole, despite the precariousness: “It is a herculean effort.”

Spanish publications, moreover, have a considerable impact in the scientific community: according to the Spanish Foundation for Science and Technology, dependent on the Ministry of Science, the normalized impact index in journals, calculated from the average number of citations received by the documents, is 1.28, which means that the Spanish findings are cited 28% more than the world average.

Likewise, the ratio of excellence at 10% is 15.1%, which indicates that 15 out of every hundred scientific publications produced in Spain are among the 10% most cited in their area of ​​knowledge. Y the ratio of excellence at 1% is 1.7%. As a whole, Spain outperforms South Korea and China in this respect, and is very close to the values ​​of the United States, France and Germany, although far from Denmark, Switzerland and the Netherlands, the leaders of this classification.

The transfer of knowledge, the pending subject

Faced with this good collection of publications, Spanish science has as a pending subject transfer the findings to practical applications and economic use, which is generically called the knowledge transfer, and which ranges from registering software to registering new plant varieties or developing prototypes.

The number of patents applied for and registered, in this sense, places Spain in positions according to its level of investment: in 2020 it was the 21st country in the world for granted patents, according to the World Intellectual Property Organization, which depends on the United Nations, and 29 if the patents applied for are related to the population. In this last aspect is where the difference with powers such as South Korea, which registered 3,485 patents per million inhabitants, compared to 68 in Spain, 50 times more.

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“Sometimes we should think that we have to patent, even before publishing. We also have to train researchers on these issues,” admits Jordán, who admits that scientists need to improve in this aspect: “There is a lack of business culture among researchers , we must promote public-private collaboration and come down from the ivory tower in which we sometimes find ourselves, look around us”.

Fenoll, however, blames much of the transfer problem on the lack of support for basic research and, above all, the deficiencies of the productive fabric: “It is not that researchers do not want to collaborate with companies, it is that in Spain there are hardly any companies with which to collaborate. Our knowledge-intensive productive fabric is practically non-existent, we are like crazy looking for companies with which to collaborate to innovate”.

A “moderately innovative” country

Ultimately, putting in the balance the virtues and the defects, the Spanish science system would obtain a high pass, although it has much to improve to rub shoulders with the innovative powers of the planet. The European Commission produces a table of innovation indicators that portrays Spain as a “moderately innovative” country, which has improved its performance compared to the European Union as a whole, although it is still far from the best.

Brussels notes, in this regard, setbacks in matters such as the innovative processes of companies, applications for brands and designs or technologies related to the environment, which overshadow some improvements in postgraduate education, spending per researcher -which in 2020, according to the INE, amounted to 108,470 euros on average- or labor mobility in the field of research and development. The great strengths continue to be digitization, environmental sustainability and, above all, the quality of the researchers.

“Taking into account the situation that we have of precariousness in research and the resources that we have, I think that at least a notable high would be given to our scientists,” says Miguel Jordán.

“As a scientific system, we fail, but individual researchers are heroes and heroines, the excellent ones and all the rest, in an atomized, unfocused and underfunded system,” adds Carmen Fenoll. Now the challenge is for society to accompany and elevate scientists, for the benefit of all.


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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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