For Spain’s Scientists, Score is “Exile 0 X 3 Excellence Chair”


As one door slams shut for beleaguered research scientists in Spain, another brighter one could just be opening.

More bad news is hardly news,  here in economically strapped Europe. The good news is that international cooperation in science — and especially with emerging economies — can and will unite people, so helping to create new futures.

Hard hit by cuts in state funding for research estimated to reach almost 50% of overall financing, some of Spain’s mid-level scientists are heading for the exits, prompting a major debate about an oncoming crisis for science in a country which until recently boasted generous allowances and a thriving sector.

No longer: a stark two-page report in Spain’s leading daily newspaper El País analyses the problem and profiles four researchers in their 30s and 40s, who are heading to the US, Canada, the UK, and Canada. “I’m heading for a country where they will treat me with dignity,” growled energy specialist Rócio Ruiz Bastos. “I won’t be coming back here except for holidays,” chemist Marcos Pita told the paper’s science reporter.

Click to read article in Spanish

This newspaper report describes a “black future” for the country’s research sector and speaks apocalyptically of “brain drain,” as precious talent is lost to nations that could become competitors in the ongoing struggle to create stronger knowledge economies

For mid-level scientists, the calls for proposals and invitations to submit projects are drying up at all Spain’s major universities. No wonder that the senior academic staff and university rectors are sending urgent-sounding petitions to the government in Madrid. And on December 19th, scientists across Spain plan street marches to protest their plight.

In fact, it looks like being a cold, hard Christmas in university towns like Salamanca where, despite the festive glitter (see photo), the mood is dour.


But does it really have to be like this? Perhaps not. An intriguing alternative is emerging in the shape of funded research exchanges that could represent a win-win outcome for beleaguered universities all across Europe.

The answer comes in the shape of “Excellence Chairs” that allow tenured academics to pursue their research overseas in partnership with an emerging breed of scientific institutions – and all without losing their research base at home. For academics unable to fund research at home, the option of undertaking the work overseas, in exchange for a lifeline of funding, is an increasingly attractive one. All they have to do is shuttle between two countries, two labs, and two sets of research students for 3-5 years.

Not a bad idea to get away during a long cold winter.

One such opportunity surfaced this week in Salamanca, Spain. Coincidence or not, senior academics University of Salamanca (USAL) had barely vacated their chairs at a tense-sounding meeting to denounce cuts in Spanish state funding, when their places were taken by representatives of a Brazilian funding agency.

Suddenly, after all the talk of austerity, there was money in the air. The Brazilians were announcing what sounded very much like a lifeline for Spanish researchers. More than that: message is “we want to internationalize”

First, they had come to announce a multidisciplinary call for proposals together with USAL for projects of up to EUR 20,000. Modest enough, perhaps.

But the real charm for Spanish researchers lay in numbers that revealed a US$600 million-a year institution already spending 11% of its own funding on foreigners – and seemingly ready to do much more.

The São Paulo Research Institute is paying for universities in Brazil’s most advanced state to open their doors to foreign researchers on terms that look financially attractive – and mean beneficiaries won’t become embittered exiles like the scientists interviewed in El País.

In 2010, this organisation funded 205 visiting foreign researchers and is now upping its quota of “Young Investigators” or post-docs to 1,000. During 2010 the organisation also co-funded more than 300 proposals with foreign institutes of learning. But the real cherry on the cake is the newly-created “São Paulo Excellence Chair.”

For tenured professors with their own research projects and teams (perhaps under threat of dispersal due to budget cuts), these tax-free awards are a prize indeed. Already two have been confirmed (see profile articles in “New Developments” section) and two more awards are in the pipeline.

A recent report in Nature described it as “a funding scheme that targets highly-accomplished foreign scientists and provides salary and research funds for working in São Paulo for twelve weeks a year over three to five years.” Such awards allow academics to set up a team of researchers in Brazil at a university in São Paulo state, under the supervision of a trusted research assistant.

What’s expected of these scientists is that they spend 12 weeks a year in-country over a 3-5 year period, and share the benefits of their research. Good for the professor – but good for his or her home university too. As well as avoiding any permanent damage through “brain drain,” the influx of foreign funding helps ensure that research and jobs at home are safe.

So, the message delivered by Brazil’s former foreign minister Celso Lafer, who now heads the São Paulo research Institute (FAPESP), that “science can unite people” is bringing some Christmas cheer to  Spanish university towns.


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