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Contributing to scientific endeavor can take many different forms – be it unlocking a mystery through sheer intellectual aptitude and determination, perhaps providing the financial means with which to build new facilities, or leadership and inspiring a new generation of budding scientists.
In the last decade Spain has given rise to plenty of examples of all three, but with a rich heritage of scientific endeavor that should come as no surprise. This includes Beatriz Galindo, the Renaissance-era Spanish physician and educator, and Spanish-born Nobel Prize winners Santiago Ramón y Cajal – the father of modern neuroscience and Severo Ochoa de Albornoz – famed for his work on the synthesis of RNA, who made significant advances in their fields in the 19th and 20th centuries.
In the five years though scientific research in Spain has had a far more turbulent journey – and the ups and downs are intrinsically linked to the country’s economy. Before the financial crisis R&D had never had it better, but between 2009 and 2013 the country’s spend on the industry plummeted by nearly 50%, with nationwide unemployment reaching a peak of 27% in April 2013. In just a few years a field that highlighted the country’s prosperity and investment in the future, had become just another sign of Spain’s fall from grace. Cutbacks reached such an extent that the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) spent 2013 on the brink of bankruptcy.
As the economy starts to regain momentum it is only now that the prospects for science and innovation in Spain are starting to look up again. There are numerous individuals that have made contributions to the sector – both in good times and bad. This article looks at three women that have made, and are making, as bigger contribution to the sector as any. Normally, you may be forgiven for asking what links the majority shareholder of one of Spain’s biggest infrastructure and environmental services groups, a project leader at a biomedical research centre, and a spokesperson for a grassroots movement.
The answer, of course, is scientific endeavour.
From Construction to Biomedical Research
Esther Koplowitz, billionaire and majority shareholder in Fomento de Construcciones y Contratas (FCC), is well known for her philanthropic work in Spain. The company’s heritage lies in construction, but more recently it diversified to become a Citizen Services company providing infrastructure and environmental services, including waste and water, across domestic and international markets. Although this positioning helped it to weather some of the effects of the financial crisis, it was still hit hard alongside many other Spanish companies in the sector.
Since 1995 when the Esther Koplowitz Foundation was established, Koplowitz has made significant philanthropic donations to range of social causes, covering the elderly, mental health and healthcare for children. These philanthropic activities eventually gave rise to the Centre for Esther Koplowitz, which was opened in Barcelona in 2010.
This biomedical research centre was created with the aim of increasing knowledge of the causes of diseases and how to treat them, particularly in Spain, across Europe and in Latin America. In just four years the centre has played an important role in biomedical research into diseases in the areas of neurology, cancer, digestion and tropical diseases, and represents one of Europe’s largest ever private donations to biomedical research.
Significantly, the Centre for Esther Koplowitz is part of the August Pi i Sunyer Biomedical Research Institute (IDIBAPS) in Barcelona, a consortium of regional institutions including Hospital Clínic de Barcelona, University of Barcelona School of Medicine, The CSIC’s Barcelona Biomedical Research Institute and Catalan Ministry of Economy and Knowledge. IDIBAPS’ aim is to engage in translational research to minimize the barriers between laboratories and the treatment of patients.
From Cement to Graphene
Whilst most people have heard of Koplowitz and are certainly familiar with the materials used in the construction industry in Europe, many of us have never heard of Graphene. An incredibly strong material one million times thinner than paper with unique properties offering huge potential for scientific exploitation, the remarkable material is the protagonist in one of Europe’s largest-ever research initiatives, the Graphene Project. A flagship initiative involving 140 organizations across 23 countries, the Graphene Project has a timescale of ten years and a budget of one billion euros.
IDIBAPS is of one of the 66 new teams in the consortium behind the Graphene project, bringing together academics and industries to achieve one of Europe’s biggest ever technological innovations. The Neurographene section of the project is aiming to achieve an unprecedented breakthrough in validating graphene as a brain interface material and developing devices for recording neural activity and brain stimulation.
Dr. Maria Victoria Sanchez-Vives, a neuroscientist, heads the Neurographene team at IDIBAPS. Her team has a crucial role to play in the ten year project aiming to bring new investors to Europe. Dr. Sanchez-Vives is very positive about what can be achieved in the project, “A 10 year project plan, instead of the usual 3-5 year duration, allows for a better roadmap. We are aiming to eventually use graphene in patients’ brains, due to its flexible and conductive properties which give it an advantage over current materials. We are close to industrial application, meaning virtual reality could become available at large consumer reality”.
Dr. Sanchez-Vives admits that she is concerned about research advances in Spain over the last twenty years getting lost due to lack of funding, but she hails EU funding as a “saviour”. In order to fund innovation in the wake of the cuts, many universities across Europe and the U.S. are creating patents in order to attract industries and investors and bring more money into institutions.
Dr. Sanchez-Vives has noticed that scientific departments are now much more aware of potential industry opportunities and protecting inventions, “Institutions devote more effort to following up what researchers are doing for applied development. At IDIBAPS we have a transfer & innovation department which looks at the process of developing patents and the legal processes linked to commercializing research. This is now the norm at institutions”.
Speaking up for funding
In contrast to philanthropic donations or EU grants, it was the issue of a lack of funding that led Amaya Moro-Martín to take a stand alongside many other scientists in Spain about the mounting budget cuts. An astrophysicist and spokesperson of the grassroots movement of Spanish scientists, Investigación Digna, Moro-Martin made clear her views on the cuts in an open letter to Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy in 2013.
Deeply frustrated by the government’s decision to reduce the budget for CSIC, Moro-Martín said that the recurrent budget cuts were “undermining the entire public research system”, to the extent that real spending on R&D had fallen “well below the EU-27 average in terms of a percentage of GDP”. With central government seemingly oblivious to the harm being done to the scientific community, in 2013 and 2014 researchers took to the streets with slogans such as “No Sciences, No Future” and “No Research. No Future.” Moro-Martín’s frustration, reflecting her own situation was that “more and more researchers are forced to contemplate emigration or a career change”.
Although it has come too late for Moro-Martin – who is now serving as an assistant astronomer (tenure track) at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore (USA) and an Associate Research Scientist at The Johns Hopkins University, the voices on the streets have been heard. Research budgets remain a far-cry from 2009 levels, but the government has said that by 2020 it aims to increase R&D spending from 1.39% to 2% of GDP.
Researching Spain’s future
Spain has had several difficult years as it tries to bounce back from the global financial crisis, but as the construction industry rebounds there are some glimmers of hope for the scientific community. The sign that Spain’s economic recovery is complete will be the year-on-year budget increases for research departments, and a rise in important philanthropic donations, like those made by Esther Koplowitz, to these causes.
Koplowitz, Moro-Martin and Vives-Sanchez all see the social, economic and scientific benefits of investing in R&D, and they have all played a role in ensuring that the legacy of scientific endeavor continues in Spain. We cannot afford to underestimate the benefits that it brings, and their efforts in this regard should be recognized and replicated where possible.