December 4, 2023

One of the laboratories of the Barcelona Science Park (PCB), on March 9, 2023, in Barcelona.
One of the laboratories of the Barcelona Science Park (PCB), on March 9, 2023, in Barcelona.David Zorraquino (Europa Press)

A few days ago the European Research Council (ERC), an institution that funds the most avant-garde and highest quality scientific research carried out in Europe, made public the results of the 2022 call, referring to projects led by established researchers (seniors) in all fields of knowledge. These are the prestigious ERC advanced grants, which have an endowment of up to 2.5 million euros per project. Spanish researchers (or foreigners who carry out their work in Spanish institutions) have received 16 grants, behind countries such as Germany (37) or France (32). Although Spain’s results are acceptable, they clearly show how far behind we still are compared to our EU neighbours. However, what is most striking is the distribution of aid within Spain; more than half of these (nine) go to Catalonia and the others are distributed among the Valencian Community (two), the Community of Madrid (two), Andalusia (one), the Basque Country (one) and Navarra (one).

This highly unequal allocation does not seem to be the result of chance, or of a bias in the sympathies of Brussels towards the Spanish autonomous communities, but is the result of the commitment to highly competitive scientific research undertaken two decades ago by the Government of Catalonia.

As is well known, the exemplary – and rightly admired – Spanish democratic transition of 50 years ago gave rise to a new era that, among other socioeconomic advances, marked the beginning of the end of our secular scientific backwardness. The subsequent development is a good example of the enormous impact that successful political decisions have in a short time, generally carried out by well-trained people who knew how to live up to their time. In this sense, two moments in the recent history of state and Catalan scientific policy that have shown to have very important transformative consequences are noteworthy. As far as state policy is concerned, a seminal event of great importance was the creation of the National Research and Development Plan (PN), the result of the courageous reformist project led by Juan Rojo Alaminos, Secretary of State for Universities and Research between the years 1985 and 1992. The PN not only increased public resources dedicated to research, but also stimulated the creation in universities and other research centers of numerous groups led by young scientists, in many cases recently incorporated into Spain after a period of training abroad.

One of the most important actions promoted by the PN was the merit evaluation of researchers, implementing an objective evaluation system, carried out by national and foreign scientists, and based exclusively on the quality of research projects and applicants. This peer review process (the peer review of the Anglo-Saxons) was coordinated from the National Agency for Evaluation and Prospective (ANEP), an institution that very soon achieved an exceptionally high prestige in the scientific community of our country.

Fortunately, the current State Plan (continuation of the PN) has maintained intellectual meritocracy and effort as one of its basic pillars.

The successful scientific policy that prompted the creation of the PN bore fruit in a few years in a structured Spanish science and technology system, distributed throughout the territory of the State, and made up of numerous modern and internationally competitive research groups and infrastructures. During the decades that followed this initial impulse, other relevant advances have been produced; However, I believe that there has been a lack of ambition, determined support for science and a far-reaching university reform, in order to reach the level of scientific development that Spain in the 21st century needs and should have. The good news has been the continuity of the PN up to the present, with central administrations of different political persuasions, and its strengthening with some later reforms, such as the creation of the State Investigation Agency. Fortunately, the current State Plan (continuation of the PN) has maintained intellectual meritocracy and effort as one of its basic pillars, avoiding the “egalitarian” distribution of scarce existing resources.

Parallel to the policies promoted by the central government, almost all the regional governments have carried out, to a greater or lesser extent, actions to stimulate scientific development in their territories. It is precisely the comparative analysis of the behavior of the autonomous governments that shows more clearly the transformative effect that the correct decisions of the rulers can have. In this context, the actions promoted by Andreu Mas Colell, who in various periods between 2000 and 2016 was Minister of Universities and the Economy of the Government of Catalonia, provide an unbeatable example.

The scientific policy promoted by Mas Colell had several fronts, but the fact that has most influenced his environment was the creation of ICREA (Catalan Institute for Advanced Research and Studies), an organization dedicated to attracting and hiring top-level researchers from within and outside of Spain ―with working and professional conditions negotiated individually― that have been incorporated into Catalan universities and research centers. The ICREA program was designed and implemented in parallel with the system of posts for civil servants at Spanish universities and some state research centers, thus avoiding a collision with a structure that has deteriorated over the years and in which, generally, individual interests prevail. on the institutional ones.

The success of Catalonia is even more visible if the ERC program is considered in its entirety and not only the 2022 call

The ICREA program has overcome the delicate political situation experienced in Catalonia during the last 20 years, faithful to its founding mission, whose objectives were the selection of the best candidates, based exclusively on professional quality and accountability through periodic evaluation. ICREA researchers have been essential in attracting external resources ―they receive amounts several times higher than those invested in them― and in the generation of the network of Catalan research centers of excellence CERCA (Centres de Recerca de Catalunya), which It has special financing from the regional government, also subject to a very demanding evaluation by international experts.

Therefore, it is no coincidence that Catalonia receives the majority (nine out of 16) of the ERC advanced grants recently awarded to Spanish institutions and that at least six of the nine awardees are ICREA researchers. icreate

Catalonia has received approximately 55% of all ERC aid (advanced grants, consolidator grant and starting grants) awarded to researchers from Spanish centers between 2007 and 2022. During this period, Catalonia received 62 ERC grants per million inhabitants, while the rest of Spain (without Catalonia) only received 19. In fact, the Catalan science and technology system In a few decades it has been at the head of Europe, since in terms of ERC aid/inhabitant it is ahead of Sweden, the United Kingdom or Germany, and only behind countries such as Switzerland, the Netherlands or Israel, with research and development systems very advanced.

The primary objective of these reflections is not to praise the policies promoted by Juan Rojo and Andreu Mas Colell, which, naturally, cannot be considered in isolation. Recent Spanish scientific development has had numerous protagonists and has been influenced by political, but also cultural and economic factors. In my area of ​​work ―experimental biomedical research― there have been important advances throughout Spain ―some pioneers in Catalonia― that are not directly related to what is indicated in the previous paragraphs. However, I believe that the facts that I have highlighted and their consequences are exemplary and illustrate the basic concept that I have always defended and that has inspired this article: social changes are often not the result of complex multi-causal phenomena, but are due to specific traceable actions promoted by easily identifiable people. Sometimes the individual and not the group makes the difference. For this reason, it is inexcusable that managers or politicians who reach positions of responsibility from which they could promote transformative actions do not do so due to ignorance and/or selfishness, or simply because it is more comfortable and safe to enjoy their position without disturbing them.

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