Spain The Country Where Laws Paralyze the Progress of Science
You have to have a lot of courage to be a scientist in this country because the bureaucracy eats you by the feet, “says Francisco Sánchez, a scientist at the Spanish Institute of Oceanography (IEO) for 35 years. Currently participates in Intemares, a pioneering project to study Spanish marine protected areas funded with almost 50 million euros, “the largest in marine research in the entire European Union,” he stresses. The IEO is in charge of studying the mud volcanoes in the Gulf of Cádiz or the cold water corals of the Bay of Biscay, among other areas of the Natura 2000 Network, but the work has been practically paralyzed since March 2017. It was necessary to hire 25 researchers and technicians to get it going and the administration did not arrive until a few days ago. Now the legal process of oppositions will begin, which will take another five or six months. In total, a year and a half to hire scientists when other partners of the project, such as the Fundación Biodiversidad, subject to more flexible administrative regulations, take 15 days, regrets Sanchez. “We’ve never seen problems like these, ever. We have been in charge of many different ministries but never had a government had so little interest in science, “laments the researcher.
The IEO is a scientific advisory body to the Government in matters of oceanography whose data help to assign fishing quotas and analyze the state of the coast and its fauna. The agency, under the Ministry of Economy and founded in the late nineteenth century, is in a situation of “paralysis”, as recently reported 322 of its 547 workers.
Almost all the problems that the IEO scientists have are reminiscent of “come back tomorrow.” Or better next year. The Francisco de Paula Navarro, one of the five ships of the IEO, is anchored with the engine seized since February 2017. The study on the banks of sardines and other species of commercial interest has been waiting for months to hire an expert DNA researcher that can analyze the data collected. Some scientists work in shabby improvised labs in old garages. The processing of purchases and contracts essential to start projects is a “Kafkaesque loop”, as defined by a researcher. Anyone who calls the IEO these days and asks to speak with their press officer will check it on their own flesh. The journalist’s contract is pending renewal for months and until then can not work.
One of the causes of this situation is a law whose objective is to combat corruption. Since 2014, public research organizations (OPI), like the rest of the administration, have been subject to prior fiscal intervention, which translates into the deployment of tax inspectors in the research centers that review each procedure, each expense, before approving it. The universities and the Superior Council of Scientific Research were exempt from this rule. In the other seven Spanish IPOs, the comings and goings of files between the intervention and the researchers means that the research projects start with delays of more than one year. The main claim of the researchers of the IEO and other IPOs is that this regulation be lifted.
To this it is added that, until the budgets of 2018 are approved, the IPOs can only spend half of their budgets, the reason that explains, among other problems, that Francisco de Paula is unemployed in Mahón and without an expected date of repair. The engine broke in the open sea and the ship and its crew had to be towed to the port of Menorca by Salvamento Marítimo. “This is a storm that is more than perfect, every time we have less personnel and more bureaucracy”, recognizes José Ignacio Díaz, head of the IEO fleet, a senior official who decided not to sign the protest manifesto. “Complaining is fine, but you can not be ignorant and think that the situation will change just because. I know that the Secretary of State for R & D and the management of the IEO are trying to solve it, but they can not deal with the closure of the Ministry of Finance and its laws. And the laws must be fulfilled yes, or yes, “he says.
The IEO staff has fallen by 20% since 2011, which has exacerbated internal problems. Almost any administrative procedure of its nine oceanographic centers on the coast has to go through the headquarters of Madrid, where there are only two workers in the project unit, three in the staff and three in the recruitment, explains Materia Eduardo Balguerías , director of the IEO, for an organization that manages dozens of projects and an annual budget of about 60 million euros. “The IEO has a structural weakness in its central administrative and scientific management services inherited from the past, which makes it more vulnerable to bureaucracy and less agile to respond to the demands of intervention,” says Balguerías. In his manifesto, the workers accused him of “conformism” for not having denounced the situation publicly. Balguerías’s message to them is: “The IEO is in a difficult situation that I am sure we will resolve,” and adds that it is giving detailed explanations in meetings with each center.
Recent movements of the Ministry of Finance show that the laws are not as immovable as they are painted. This month, the Secretary of State for Budgets, Alberto Nadal, approved an exception to the budgetary rule that allows the expenditure of an additional 6.7 million euros in 2018 to the Center for Energy, Environmental and Technological Research, another affected OPI in which hundreds of scientists signed a complaint manifesto for their situation of “collapse” published by this newspaper. A spokesman for the Ministry of Economy’s R + D + i secretariat of state explains that this department will support a plan to decentralize the IEO and adds that the Treasury has been asked “not to apply the prior intervention to the IPOs or at least it is restricted to certain files “.
On Tuesday, Finance Minister Cristóbal Montoro explained that the budget proposal for 2018 includes an increase of 8.3% for civil and military investigation. But many researchers think that the important thing is not money, but to change the laws that are paralyzing the investigation. “Although these regulations affect us all, the most punished are the middle classes of research, to the point that some centers are at risk of disappearing,” explains Luis Serrano, president of Somma, the union of 41 centers and Severo Ochoa and María de Maeztu units that receive additional funding from the Government for their high quality. A few days ago, Serrano met with parliamentary groups to propose urgent legal reforms in the rules of public procurement and the VAT refund, among other issues that threaten to stop the research activity in its tracks. “Everyone agrees that the laws are approved without taking into account the science and have presented initiatives not law to try to solve it, but from there they have to go climbing up and in the end they run into the Treasury,” he says. Once the laws are approved, it is more complicated to change them, especially in a political situation like the current one, which is why Serrano advocates the creation of a science advisory office both in Parliament and in the presidency of the Government, as happens in other countries. . “Science should be a matter of country.