Thursday, June 14, 2012

The hard choices of Carmen Vela

The Spanish science community is in turmoil because Carmen Vela, the Science Secretary, announced in Nature unprecedented budget cuts of 23.5% for the sector. These are of course terrible news. Her rather displaced tone of optimism irritates many, but she is not the person to blame. She simply is the one in charge of managing those shrinking funds. Whoever will manage the Spanish science budget for 2012 will have to make hard choices, and hard choices will obviously not please everyone.

So what hard choices did she announce? Fewer post-doctoral fellowships and more research money for those getting them.

Such a decision is of course debatable.

What I primarily need for my work is brains, not money. But my needs are unlikely to represent the needs of the vast majority of my colleagues. Research money is indeed critical to get going with many projects, and especially important when starting a new research programme as an independent researcher.
Moreover, she has to manage people’s expectations. Many researchers that received the prestigious ‘Ramón y Cajal’ fellowships failed to get a job in Spain. This caused frustration among them, because fellowships were presented as a kind of tenured track position. It was, of course, misleading to present the ‘Ramón y Cajal’ fellowships as a tenured track, and it was naïve to believe this was the case.

So, one of the hard questions the State Secretary will have to address in 2012 is whether to keep increasing the pool of discontent research fellows that have no chance to be assimilated by the system, or attract slightly fewer researchers but give them more resources to undertake research.

These are, of course, short-term management decisions. The long-term challenge will involve turning the system upside down and scrapping the two-tier system that allows some established researchers to do little, while forcing some of the younger best to give up or go elsewhere.

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