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Spain delays multimillion research grants

Posted on behalf of Nuño Domínguez.

MADRID — The Spanish government has delayed the award of prestigious scientific grant programmes and unexpectedly reduced travel grants even as young scientists were leaving for short stays at laboratories abroad. The move has raised fears among junior and senior scientists that this could be another cut to the already battered science budget, which has gone through four years of continued reductions.

At stake are 940 positions for scientists and lab technicians with a total spending of €104 million (US$136 million). The programmes would provide labour and equipment funding for researchers at universities and research centres across Spain for a period of up to five years. The government was supposed to issue a final list of grantee recipients in late April, following a decision period of six months, but on 12 April the secretary of state for research, development and innovation unexpectedly extended the decision period for six more months.

Among the four nation-wide programmes that have been delayed is the Ramón y Cajal tenure-track system, created in 2001 to attract and retain top Spanish and foreign talent. The programme suffered delays in 2011, and a hiring freeze imposed last year is also severely reducing the chances for those finishing their five-year grant period to land a permanent position. The government says that the delay is due to the unusual number of grantee applications received, which it says went up by 4%.

“The delay means it is going to be two years since the last time scientists were awarded these grants,” says Carlos Andradas, the president of the Confederation of Spanish Scientific Societies (COSCE).

The government’s decision comes amid severe delays and cuts across the country’s main scientific programmes. The science budget has been cut by 7.2% in 2013 and 25.5 % in 2012, and has accumulated a 38% reduction since 2009, according to COSCE. “It will be inevitable that the scientists competing for these grants would pursue other opportunities abroad if they have the option,” says Andradas.

“We only expect to issue a provisional Ramón y Cajal grantee list after the summer,” a spokesperson for the state secretary for research says. The other three programmes are expected to be awarded “before summer”, he says.

The government is also postponing its final word on other grants funding travel and stays abroad for young scientists.This programme will award €6.7 million in grants for researchers to complete experiments for their PhD work in other countries. In a meeting with junior and senior scientists yesterday in Madrid, science secretary Carmen Vela said that she hopes the grants would be awarded “in two weeks”.

But because grants cannot reimburse travel expenses that have already occurred, the delay would mean the programme’s overall budget will be “slashed by an additional  8%”, says Roberto Díez, a PhD scientist at the Centro de Investigaciones Biológicas in Madrid, who attended the meeting. “Last time they contacted us they also said it was going to be two weeks, so this is already a month delay,” says Díez.

The research secretary’s spokesperson says the 8% cut is due to grant application review by ANEP, a national agency supervising public-funded research projects.


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