Research council faces paralysis within weeks if the money cannot be found

The Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) will be in a state of ‘paralysis … in a matter of weeks’, unless it receives an urgent injection of €75 million (£64 million). The alarm bell was rung last Friday in a letter sent by a hundred of CSIC’s institutional directors to Carmen Vela, secretary of state for science.

The letter comes after a press conference held by CSIC’s president Emilio Lora-Tamayo on 9 July  in Madrid, where he said CSIC faces a ‘catastrophe’. If no extra money is found, the institute will not be able operate beyond October.

It is impossible to be scientifically competitive in such a climate of uncertainty

In order to survive until autumn, the council must stick to draconian spending cuts, and there is no spare money left over from research projects to bolster CSIC’s finances as this has already been spent keeping the council afloat. Lora-Tamayo established these measures in a decree on 2 July. But CSIC’s directors say in their letters that they may not be enough to avoid a progressive paralysis – or even closure of centres – starting at the end of July.

‘We will face a desperate situation if more liquidity is not injected soon,’ says Xavier Obradors, director of the Materials Science Institute of Barcelona (ICMAB-CSIC). ‘Research would be paralysed. There would be money to pay scientists, but not to keep centres open,’ says Joan Grimalt, director of CSIC’s Institute of Environmental Assessment and Water Research (IDAEA-CSIC).

But the current spending caps are already creating problems. ‘Experimental chemistry is especially affected: reagents are expensive and the administration does not allow new purchases unless they are vital,’ says Enrique Lomba, director of the Institute of Physical Chemistry Rocasolano (IQFR-CSIC). Trips and congresses have also been cancelled, he says.

With 6000 scientists and more than 100 institutes, CSIC is the largest scientific institution in Spain. However, its budget has fallen by 30% from 2008 levels, mainly due to government cuts. The council has reduced its operating costs from €710 million per year in 2009 to €500 million in 2013, and is only offering 13 permanent positions in 2013, compared with 263 in 2008. Nevertheless, its expenses have been higher than its revenues over the last four years.

CSIC compensated for this deficit by drawing on its savings, which was mostly unspent money from research projects. But its savings of €410 million in 2009 soon fell to just €82 million by January 2013. ‘This was below the minimal safety margin. With those saving and the earmarked budget, CSIC could operate only until summer,’ says Alicia Durán, a chemistry researcher at CSIC in Madrid.

The Spanish government gave CSIC exceptional extra funding of €25 million at the end of June, but Lora-Tamayo says another €75 million is needed to get to the end of the year. ‘The government will do whatever is needed to maintain CSIC,’ said Vela at a press conference held in Madrid on 11 July. She promised an additional €50 million for later this year, although that would still leave CSIC facing a €25 million black hole.

Obradors and Grimalt are worried that funding bodies may claw back money assigned to research projects, as some of this has gone on CSIC’s running costs which is not where it was meant to go. ‘It is impossible to be scientifically competitive in such a climate of uncertainty. Three people out of my staff of 42 have already gone abroad, even though they had a permanent position,’ says Lomba.