Even cavemen were scientists. Thanks to their curiosity we managed to discover fire, to invent the wheel and develop all those tools that in time lead us to the fancy cars, computers and phones we use today. But today it might happen that we have to go back to playing with stones and sticks, at least in countries like mine: Spain. Where public science support has turned out to be more than menial, with budget cuts over 25% of last’s years expenses on R&D and without any openings for new contracts in public research agencies the years ahead cannot seem darker.
It all started with the worldwide economic crisis a few years ago. At first, the cuts were noticeable but spanish science is used to do a lot with little. Lately though, the dramatic financial situation of the country plus the victory of the conservative party, the Popular Party, in the last election has turned the situation from bad to worse. The outlook appears so grim is hard to foresee when there will be an optimal R&D infrastructure in the country.
It is sad to see once and again how everytime my country goes through a hard time the first areas to suffer budgetary cuts are those that are supposed to be (partly, at least) the solution to the very same problems we face. How can a country get over a crisis without developing its science?
If we look at some of the countries that have better dealt with the crisis, like the US or Germany, we can observe those have not only not reduced their investment in R&D but increased it. By 5% for the 2013 budget in the US and for the running year by 11% in respect to 2011 for the latter. In Spain, the cut will mean a 22.5% reduction from 2011 figures.
Without investing in science there is no way of developing a country, or its economy. They all know it, but we don’t. In a letter to Nature a few weeks ago, the Secretary of State for Research, Carmen Vela (and it’s secretary and not Minister because science is SO unimportant in my country that it doesn’t even deserve its own Ministry) tried to defend the govermental position by saying there are just too many scientists in Spain, and not enough to support everyone. Let’s have a look at the numbers. In Spain around 9.6% of the working force is doing a science related activity whereas the european average lies in 10.4% (and surely in countries like Germany that percentage is higher). Are there really so many scientists abusing the system?
Another point she makes is the need to increase quality over quantity. This last part would be all good and fine if there would be such a problem but the only thing we have in excess is qualified people. People that cannot pursue their scientific careers for lack of support, and therefore need to leave to develop their projects. That’s called a brain drain, and it’s not a new phenomenon. It means a lot of those highly qualified scientists educated in Spain will never deliver anything from their training in their own country, but in those that do understand the value of their work. I am one of those.
The big issue here is that politicians cannot understand the timing of science. Scientific discovery is not something that can be assessed in a four year period (our government is reelected every four years), some findings don’t even have a down-to-earth application for decades or even longer, but without them there is no way out of this crisis or any other. Actually, without science, there is simply no future. For science makes the future possible.