Spain’s R&D Ranks In An Unpretentious Second Division

Spanish R&D spending grows again in 2017 after 2016 slowdown, but still in pre-crisis levelsSpanish R&D

Irrespective of what kind it is, research generates numerous commercial applications which can be developed to make people’s life easier. It is also profitable for the companies who promote them, while making countries more powerful and turning them into global scientific references. According to the latest OECD data, the US accounts for 28% of what all the countries on the planet (194) spend on research, followed by China with 20% and the European Union with 19%.

The US is home to 22 of the 30 universities with the most impact in the field of science in the world. And 50% of Science and Engineering research students who decide to leave their native countries end up in the US  to complete or develop their academic training. Attracting or buying talent, which is the same thing, is a formula which always produces benefits in the long term. The North Americans know this, as well as many countries which earmark resources for research to guarantee the future.

China, is an example of a country which has no qualms about copying, has got its act together and realised that investment in R&D&r is one of the ways of increasing its power. It has decided to increase research spending to 2.7% of GDP from 1.7% previously, the same as the US now. Or Singapore, which has taken a huge leap in technology, becoming an intelligent country.

The National Institute for Health in the US (NIH) is an example of the kind of returns research offers. It is is one of the largest medical research centres in the world. In its over 100 years of existence, more than 140 Nobel prize-winners have passed through its laboratorios, sharing or having shared their knowledge with those people working there. The NIH is an example of State policy as far as medical research is concerned. Over 80% of this institute’s Budget is earmarked for financing research in other universities and research centres in the US.

Foreigners account for 50% of the NIH’s researchers. Chinese, Indians, Koreans, Japanese, as well as a lot of Spaniards have been contracted and find an ideal atmosphere there for developing their work. Whatsmore, working in the NIH is a status symbol and sparks admiration amongst the population where its centres are located, and where 2,000 new researchers of difficult nationalities arrive every year.

And so what about Spain? There is an increasingly more intense brain drain amongst young Spanish researchers. They are snatched by foreign universities to develop an activity which here in Spain is limited, fundamentally for budget reasons. This theft of talent says a lot about how much our young researchers are valued. But also about the lack of expectations they have in their own country.

Spain has lost 11,000 researchers in the last six years, according to the National Statistics Institute. The Spanish Scientific Research Council, the biggest scientific organisation in the country, has lost 4,000 employees since 2011, a large part of them young researchers. This brain drain makes your hair stand on end. And also the fact that since the 2008 economic crisis, Spain has cut its R&D&r spending by 33%, while research subsidies have fallen 43% to 2005 levels.

These are figures released by the COTEC Foundation in Spain during a meeting it organised with the different political parties a few days before the December 20 elections. This foundation says the gap between Spain and the EU has got wider in terms of research spending as a percentage of GDP. According to the lastest figures, Spain dedicates 1.2% of its GDP to research, significantly lower than the pre-crisis percentage.

Brain drain, lack of funding, inbreeding in contracting talent, disinterest on the part of companies in R&D&r and the fact that this has not become a national priority. These are some of the pending challenges for Spanish science.

As it has no Ministry, it will have to be seen whether the recently created State Agency for Research is capable of surviving with its own budget and become a real driver of research in Spain, irrespective of the political bias of the party which is in government every four years. We are many years behind with all this and buying technology from third parties is very, very expensive.


About the Author

Carlos Díaz Guell
Editor at and, Carlos began his career in financial journalism as founding member of El País. He's been communications director of Bank of Spain, member of the ECC at the European Central Bank, Institutional Relations director at Iberia and editor at La Economía 16 magazine.