Does Spanish Austerity Provide a Glimpse into the Future of American Research?

Spain’s economy was harshly affected by the 2008 financial crisis and, later, the eurozone crisis. (Just this week, the country’s budget minister said Spain has reached a turning point and may at last be emerging from its financial troubles.) Its efforts to slash government spending left few unaffected, and a recent article by Agence France-Presse detailed the effects on Spanish researchers.

The Prince Felipe Research Center, in the coastal city of Valencia, lost around half of its funding from the Spanish government; as a result, it closed half of its 28 labs and let go 114 workers. María Jesus Vicent told the wire service that her lab had made great strides in prostate cancer research, but there’s no money to move forward into animal testing.

The fallout is obvious: fewer people employed (in a country that already has a staggering unemployment rate) and medical breakthroughs left on the shelf. Less obvious is this anecdote from the story, which demonstrates a near elimination of return on investment: “Now the center’s hi-tech installations are falling into disuse, with its two mechanized operating theaters for animal research now being used for training courses instead.”

And that doesn’t take into account the issue of competitiveness; the article cites a recent example of brain drain: Unable to get funding to perform his research in Spain, physicist Diego Martinez moved to Geneva to join the European Organization for Nuclear Research.

The 30-year old Martinez had recently been named Europe’s best young physicist.

“Basically,” he told AFP, “when you leave, you won’t come back.”

Perhaps this is instructive for the near-term state of research in the U.S.: Drastic budget cuts have real-world effects. It may not be clear now, but by the time it becomes clear, it’ll be too late. That’s why it’s critical to fund scientific research at the level of scientific opportunity. Public opinion polling commissioned by Research!America has shown that Americans hold high expectations of our country’s research enterprise, and that they expect the U.S. to remain a global leader in research.

We can see the path that Spain has walked down; why would we ever want to follow their footsteps?

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