"The present and the future lie in science and innovation"

Spain’s Secretary of State for Research, Development and Innovation

A biochemist with over 30 years of experience in immunology, virology and related areas, prior to her appointment in January 2012 she was general director and CEO of Ingenasa, a biotechnology company involved in the animal health field. She is author of various publications and patents in Europe and the United States. She was president of the Spanish Biotechnology Society (SEBIOT) and the Spanish Association of Women Researchers and Technologists (AMIT).

 

Why are research and innovation important in today’s society? What importance do they have for the economy?

Science seeks to resolve problems affecting society in the short, medium or long term, which should be sufficient reason to support it unreservedly. However, there are people who criticise the fact that science needs a large quantity of resources yet does not guarantee applicable scientific nor economic results. While it is not easy to demonstrate, there are studies that affirm that the economic impact of funding for science does give positive results in the short term. What is quite clear is the fact that countries that invest the most in science are more socially and economically developed. And that is not down to chance.

In the case of innovation, its direct relationship with business productivity and competitiveness would appear to be accepted. But it is not easy to implement. Spending in itself does not guarantee innovation, which is a business process linked to company strategies. It is not a case of renewing machinery or computer programs or acquiring new vehicles, but of efficient management and use of the resources we have available to us to convert new ideas into improved products, processes or services as demanded by society.

 

What importance do they have for society as a whole?

The present and the future lie in science and innovation, of that there is no doubt. Without RDI, societies would never have evolved as they have done. And in the coming years we have many challenges to be resolved that without research and innovation would be impossible to tackle: curing diseases, demographic change, food security, sustainability, achieving smart, environmentally-friendly and integrated transport or safe, clean and efficient energy, stopping climate change... The ultimate goal of science is to improve people’s lives.

 

Within an economic crisis context, how can allocating public resources to RDI be defended?

The explanation in the previous answer should be sufficient defence. But with a crisis as deep as the one we have experienced, it is very hard to remain on the sidelines. Education and health are equally important and we have all had to make budgetary efforts.

 

How should the important increase in the budget allocated to RDI announced by the government for 2020 be structured?

In the Spanish Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy we set ourselves a target of 2% of GDP for 2020. In Spain the maximum has been 1.39% and now, after the crisis, we are at 1.22%. To reach that 2% we would have to increase spending on RDI by some 10,000 million euros. We know it is going to be very complicated to achieve that. What we can achieve is the Central Administration reaching what corresponds to that 2%, which would mean increasing the RDI item in the General State Budgets by some 250 million euros per year until 2020. And we hope that this increase will encourage the Autonomous Communities and companies, as they all play a fundamental role in the equation.

 

What is your opinion with respect to the possibility that research centres cannot recover the VAT they have paid as part of their economic activity?

Taxation subjects are especially sensitive and complex, and need to be approached in all their extension. We are aware of the problem, especially with regard to research centres and universities, so we are working with the Ministry of Finance and Public Administration, which is in charge of tax regulations, to find a satisfactory solution. And we have found that they are enormously sensitive to this matter.

 

Should RDI be more public or private? What is the right combination? What can we do to improve the current mix?

Public and private, both are essential. The EU establishes that to achieve a healthy RDI system, two thirds of the total investment should be private. In Japan, South Korea and Germany the private contribution is higher than 65%, even approaching 80% in some cases. In Spain we barely exceed 50%. This is a significant deficit that we are trying to correct. Since 2012 we have worked insistently on bringing together actors in the system – universities, companies, public bodies and research centres, technology parks, etc. – and we have made a commitment to public-private collaboration. The first step that we took, in 2013, was to design a single Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy that contemplates the entire process, from idea to market, instead of two separate strategies, as had been done previously: one for research and another for innovation.

 

What must we do to compete in such a competitive international context to attract RDI? How can we compete with the emerging economies?

Very good research is carried out in Spain. Clearly there are things that we need to improve, many things, but scientific progress has been more than considerable in our country. We have numerous top-class centres, researchers with a worldwide impact in many areas, state-of-the-art infrastructures, significant participation in the biggest European and international facilities… Our system is barely 30 years old, with the first Law on Science being passed in 1986. Since then, the Spanish science, technology and innovation system has revealed itself to be a capable and effective system.

Spain accounts for 0.7% of the world’s population and 1.7% of its researchers. However, Spanish science is responsible for 3.1% of worldwide scientific output, 4.5% of the most excellent and 6.7% of the total of publications in the most important journals. We cannot and should not underestimate what we have achieved.

The competitiveness of Spanish science is also reflected in the European research and innovation programme, Horizon 2020. In the first three years (2014-2016) Spanish companies, universities and research bodies and centres have obtained nearly 2,000 million euros, which represents close to 10% of the funds awarded. We are the fourth highest-ranking country in terms of grants received, despite the fact that we are competing with the best companies, universities and research centres in Europe. Furthermore, we lead nearly 15% of the projects, far higher than the target we had set ourselves. These are very good results that show that the country has talent and that the system is efficient.

But, as I said, we have many things to correct if we want to continue being competitive in a context like the present one. We have to gain in administrative flexibility, improve management, strengthen public-private collaboration, increase the citizens’ agenda and achieve stable and growing funding, both public and private.

 

How are education and research related? How can we ensure that there are people dedicated to science in the medium and long term?

We need to increase scientific vocations, in Spain and in the rest of the world; this is a problem that concerns the majority of countries. I am convinced that the future lies in more inter-disciplinary education where much greater weight is held by creativity, scientific method and interactive work between teachers and students. Education must not be based solely on learning and acquiring knowledge. Education must make students think, debate the problems affecting the real world and try to resolve them.

I also think that science and higher education should have a much closer relationship. We should not forget that universities are responsible for 60% of the research carried out in Spain.

 

What sectors ought to be developed in the coming years? What fields of science are the most promising?

In recent years, knowledge has evolved in such a way that it is interdisciplinary. We cannot talk of sectors nor areas of knowledge. There are spheres of research, there are problems to be resolved, there are scientific questions.

We can, however, talk about emerging or promising fields. Here in Spain we can include the bioeconomy, personalised medicine, bio-nanotechnology, new materials, renewable energies such as solar, biomass, wind and offshore wind energy and biodiversity. Spain is also very heavily involved in supercomputing, in collaboration with other European countries. This is an essential area for doing good science and having a competitive industry. Quantum technologies are another example: the European Union has a Flagship project for quantum technologies due to their importance for the future of European industry, and we have been involved from the outset. All of these are important for the future and Spain has prominent research groups that have extensive experience.

 

What is the role of social sciences and humanities within the overall research field?

They are key disciplines for the development and promotion of research geared towards societal challenges, which has a close relationship with the social sciences and humanities. However, achieving the incorporation of this vision into the framework of research projects of a classical type, which are still quite “discipline-oriented”, is a challenge for our researchers. There is research in the humanities and social sciences, but it is never disconnected or isolated, just as research in other fields should not be disconnected from the rest of progress either. As I said earlier, knowledge is increasingly interdisciplinary.

 

What measures can we take to retain and attract research talent?

We must continue with institutional reinforcement programmes such as the Severo Ochoa and the María de Maeztu programmes. At these research centres and units they are capable of attracting and retaining the best national and international talent. Also with our HR programmes, such as the Ramón y Cajal and Juan de la Cierva programmes. We have to reinforce the figure of the distinguished researcher: these contracts are the seed of a new non-civil service scientific career, whose continuity is conditioned to the achievement of results, as occurs in countries with more advanced scientific systems. And we want to increase the flexibility and improve the contracting models of universities and public research bodies.

 

How can philanthropic contributions to science be stimulated, taking into account that we are a long way behind the countries we are competing with in research?

Increased philanthropic contributions in favour of science are the result of a change in society’s participation model. We are at a disadvantage with respect to other countries, especially if we compare ourselves with the English-speaking countries, where there is a deeply-rooted tradition. This growing presence of citizens has gained major importance since the Rome Declaration of 2014 on Responsible Research and Innovation, which is committed to advancing six elements related with stimulating philanthropic contributions to science. These elements are science education, open access, citizen participation, gender equality, change in governance and an ethical vision.

 

Is it possible to expect greater involvement of citizens on a private level, for example in the promotion or funding of science?

Yes, it is possible to expect an increase in citizen involvement, because this would mean confirming on an economic support level the positive tendency of indicators such as the increase in spontaneous interest in science among the Spanish population, the reduction in the gender gap in that same interest and the increase in scientific culture.

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