‘LET THEM INVENT!’: THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF CSIC?

We live in the darkest times. As I wait for Putin to start WW III in Crimea, an article in El País catches my attention: “La caída de personal y financiación hace regresar al CSIC una década atrás” (https://sociedad.elpais.com/sociedad/2014/02/24/actualidad/1393271163_538095.html). CSIC, the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, the sub-heading announces, has lost already 2,200 workers and will offer neither contracts nor grants (pre- or post-doctoral) until at least 2016. The article claims that having lost 32% of its state funds since 2009 and 49% of private contributions since 2011, CSIC will soon revert to 2007 levels. Only 2007?? 1997 seems more accurate, if not 1987.

More figures: total staff (end of 2012) 12,795 employees of which 3,034 full-time researchers (my university, UAB has 3,262 researchers, who also teach). 50,7% women researchers, 1,583 research groups. Average age: 53!!! No young blood, clearly. Budget: currently 453 million euros (731 in 2007…), as opposed to 3,415 (German Max Planck) and 1,530 (French CNRS). Publications 2007-2011: 49,873 (up 6% since 2012 in range A journals), not so bad in comparison with CNRS (54,200) but in embarrassing contrast to Max Planck’s 215,261. The Germans have 18 Nobel winners, the French 17, CSIC none. Principal problem apart from funding: researchers are tenured, too little hiring flexibility, too much centralization. Apparently, the scientific programmes run by the regional governments work better: CERCA (Catalan), Ikerbasque or Imdea (Madrid).

Unamuno’s famous boutade, “Let them invent!”, comes, according to Spanish Wikipedia from a long-lived debate (1906-1912) with pro-European José Ortega y Gasset. Unamuno wrote an essay for La España Moderna titled “Lo europeo moderno o lo africano antiguo… ¿por qué no ser africano como lo fue San Agustín?” in which the argument, I gather, is that some fuzzy kind of religious mysticism makes Spain essentially anti-scientific… The famous sentence comes, it seems, from a letter to Ortega (1906) in which Unamuno declares his anti-Europeanism. The idea is that rich Europeans invent and that we passively benefit from their inventions.

This idiotic stance has conditioned since then the work of poor Spanish scientists and, generally speaking, researchers, as we need to justify at each step why we do what we do. Ramón y Cajal, after whom the major research fellowships are named in Spain, obtained his Nobel prize for Medicine in 1906, the same year when Unamuno’s mysticism was razing to the ground the shallow foundations on which Spanish science lay. There’s some irony there. And tragedy as, unfortunately, Unamuno and not Cajal seems to have been since then the main inspiration for the successive Spanish governments. Perhaps with the exception of the few years back in the early 2000s when Spain even started to lead research worldwide (I’m thinking of Mariano Barbacid and María Blasco’s research on cancer at the Centro Nacional de Investigaciones Oncológicas).

I do not know CSIC first hand and it might well be that its structure is in dire need of reorganization, that it is a house of Usher showing serious cracks. Rumours abound about its being a clumsy, slow dinosaur in our international world of fastest science (if my friend Carme Torras is reading me, maybe she can offer her own insider’s opinion…). What I know is that no institution, scientific or otherwise, can progress with reduced funding and the constant threat of annihilation.

Perhaps, in view of how things are, CSIC researchers should work on a single common project: bulding the time machine to fly back to the few pre-crisis years when their house seemed on the way to be, one day, another Max Planck. And when Spain seemed to be a European country capable of inventing and …of thinking.

Comments are very welcome! (Thanks!) Just remember that I check them first for spam; it might take a few days for yours to be available. VISIT MY WEB: https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

2 thoughts on “‘LET THEM INVENT!’: THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF CSIC?

  1. What may I add? You got all the numbers and have nicely presented the situation. To contribute a bit of optimism from an insider’s viewpoint, my feeling is that the deepest point in the valley was reached last October and, since then, we are slowly (very slowly) recovering. At least, this is the hope before we resort to the time machine…
    (PS. Demanes a tothom que demostri que no és un robot… o només a mi???)

  2. Hi Carme!!
    Oh dear, in a way I’m sorry to read I got it right. I wish things were better and I do hope October was really a turning point.
    I didn’t know comments require identification but I’m not surprised given the amounts of spam I get -really. So you’re not a robot, right? 😉
    Sara

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.