José Manuel Torres Ruiz wanted to return to Spain. In 2017, this researcher was in France and signed up for a selective process to request one of the Juan de la Cierva grants offered by the Ministry of Science to postdoctoral researchers. In parallel, an official position came out in the Gallic country that fit his profile. He asked for it too. He got both. On one side of the balance, the possibility of returning and giving back to his country everything he had invested in it, but with a temporary contract, and then uncertainty. In the other, a stable position and more possibilities for professional development. The decision was made almost by itself, he says. Spain would have to wait.
No one knows how many Josemanueles there are around the world wanting to return to Spain. Nor does anyone seem to know exactly how much the State invests in its researchers. But there is a certainty, although it is not quantified: Spain spends billions to train high-level scientists so that they can then be produced for other countries.
There are some approximations. Professors from the University of Coruña Moisés Canle and Xosé Luís Barbeito calculated in this article that for a researcher with a master's degree, a doctorate and four years of postdoctoral studies, the figure amounts to 403,600 euros. The figure comes from adding 44,400 euros for a four-year degree, 22,200 for a master's degree, 92,000 that are used to do the doctorate, 71,500 euros in public contracts for the first two after reading the thesis and another 81,500 for the next two, plus a few tens of thousands in indirect costs (equipment, mentors) and another few thousand in the usual stays abroad, congresses, etc.
"And those calculations are very conservative," says Canle, also aware that the calculation is coarse because it is not the same to train a researcher in History than one in Biotechnology. "When I think about this, the image of opening the window and throwing out half a million euros comes to mind." And he delves into the accounts: "There are no clear estimates of how many people left during the previous crisis, but I would say between 10,000 and 15,000 people, and surely I am falling short. Let's be conservative, let's say 10,000. There are 10,000 researchers for 500,000 euros [5.000 millones de euros]. Your head explodes. It is senseless to allow people in whom we invest astronomical amounts in training to leave the country, and furthermore with this discourse of 'they will come back'. We are not in the 90s, and it is likely that many of those who leave now will never return" due to the lack of opportunities.
Like Jose Manuel. Or like Aida Sánchez Bretaño, 34, a graduate in Biology, with a master's degree in Biochemistry, Molecular Biology and Biomedicine and a doctorate, who also wanted to come back from the United States, where she was offered an opportunity, but has already given up. "I managed to return to Europe, but not to Spain, where nobody wants me because I have no contacts in the laboratories", and explains that he applied for scholarships everywhere to always get the same answer: "We like you a lot, but we have an internal candidate, you are the second. "There I had to accept that I was not going to be able to return to Spain and that I needed to close that door." She found a job in a private company in Southampton, England, and managed to satisfy her need to be close to Spain for family reasons.
The Ministry of Science and Innovation does not know how many Spanish researchers there are abroad. The department directed by Diana Morant points out that it does not have official statistics and refers to RAICEX (Network of Associations of Spanish Researchers and Scientists Abroad), which has identified 4,000, but is aware that there are more. Sources from the Ministry also lower the calculations of Conle and Barbeito and put the cost of training a doctor at around 100,000 euros (the figure is lower because it only considers the doctorate, it does not include the four years of postdoctoral studies, which the professors calculate at more than 150,000 euros, neither the master's degree nor the degree, which could be understood as a more universal stage). With these figures, Spain's recent spending on researchers who produce for others would be between 400 million euros in the lowest range up to more than a thousand depending on the stages that are added. We should also add those who have obtained a doctorate abroad or have gone abroad of their own free will, not forced in search of a future.
This would be, more or less, the case of Early Israel. Graduated in Chemistry at the Universidade da Coruña, he went to Canada to do his doctorate. He didn't know it then, but he was leaving, never to return. During his doctorate in Québec, he was offered to go to Liverpool when he finished and from there, after nine months, he went to a leading research group in his field in Cambridge, where he has been since 2009 and has just been promoted to what would be a senior researcher.
Now it will no longer be at the expense of someone giving it projects and it could seek its own financing. A little step further from Spain, although in her case he is not worried because he does not feel the need to return. There was a window of opportunity that did not materialize when he asked three times for Ramón y Cajal help that he was not given. "At that time I would have gone back," he says. He didn't pass, and now he has his own team in one of the best Chemistry departments in the world.
Each researcher abroad indicates a situation that prevents his return to Spain. Torres Ruiz, from his position as a civil servant in Clermont Ferrand, explains that in addition to the obvious – job stability and the possibilities for development that having a permanent position in France gives him compared to the lack of prospects that he would have in Spain – he talks about bureaucracy . "The process of becoming an official here is similar to that of the Council [el CSIC, Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas], but easier because it is shorter. In the Council you have to document all the merits you have, etc. Here is the resume, without further ado. It was relatively simple, because justifying all the merits you have in your CV... We [los españoles] because we know the system, but for a foreigner it can be an insurmountable system," he observes. Also predictability. "They are much more regular in terms of places, every year they leave on the same date. In Spain there is no calendar, you have to be aware of when the calls come outOne year they come out and another year they don't. So you can not make a vital planning ".
Sánchez Bretaño speaks first of the famous inbreeding. "He asked for scholarships, he asked for scholarships, but it was always the second." Until she gave up. But, like Torres Ruiz, he also explains a differentiating factor. Hiring him to do a postdoc at the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta was a matter of days. They told him about a vacancy in a congress in Krakow, he showed interest, they called him from the center, he sent them the CV and "it took two days for them to say yes". The trip itself would be postponed for a few months due to visa issues, but the operation was seen and not seen.
Early speaks of imports and exports, balanced balances. Or unbalanced in the case of Spain. Talented, always. "That the researchers leave is not a major problem", exposes a thought that is shared by the entire scientific community. "In science it is very important that there is a homogenization of talent, that people go abroad, see other methods, adapt new methods. All this is crucial. The problem is that it has to be bidirectional, you have to import the same thing that you export, if you're not wasting talent and money. What is happening to Spain?
Early explains the situation in China, just the opposite, as an example. "It is investing a lot of money and it takes people away," he says, a movement parallel to that of sending many of its university students to centers around the world, where they are trained, carry out this immersion in other methods and systems, and then return to their country to apply that knowledge. "It's like a soccer team," she explains, perhaps aware that this is a country that is more soccer-loving than scientific. "If you have a very strong youth academy but you sell all the players once you have formed them, it limits your potential and grow as a team. You are interested in a strong youth academy, but you are also interested in incorporating players from other academies. If you only export and buy but do not generate talent you are unbalanced and you are wasting resources".
To close, the three researchers agree on one issue. Spain's problem is not one of talent or training. "We are well trained," says Sánchez Bretaño. He early highlights it from his experience. First, personal: "When I started my studies in Canada in the first semester, I had two theoretical courses in Chemistry. I had very normal grades from my degree and was at a university statistically much higher than that of A Coruña, also French-speaking and not I spoke a word of French. I thought they were going to kick me out. Well, in those two courses I got the best grade of all, "he says. Not to put on airs: "In Spain we overcompensate with training. It's more difficult, but we learn a lot."
Now he sees it from the other side at his job. "We have Spanish doctoral students and postdoctoral students and they are very well regarded. When you find a first-year student who has just graduated, you do not see any difference between one who comes from Vigo and one from Cambridge, which has the best Chemistry department in the world. Level problem is not ".
To close, the interviewees point out that although they are better off in the countries where they currently work, the problems with research are also reproduced to a certain extent in their places of residence. "In the investigation, we often think that the problems are of the country, but in reality they are usually the same. What changes are the solutions that each country proposes to its problems," reflects Torres Ruiz.
Asked about its own, the Ministry of Science recounts the measures it has included in the new science law to encourage this return: "There is a commitment to stable and growing public financing," explains a spokeswoman. "We have indefinite contracts for scientific-technical activities without being subject to a replacement fee or public employment offer; a new postdoctoral contract with a horizon of stabilization by reserving places in universities and Public Research Organizations. It is also planned to approve the plan for return with more measures in the coming weeks".
The problem that Torres Ruiz detects is that it is late. He, he says, is in his best professional moment at 40 years old. "I have two interns, three postdocs, I am establishing international connections. Now is when I am most productive. Then you stabilize. If you turn 45-50 years old, you run the risk of turning Spain into an elephant graveyard. When you hit a person the opportunity with 32-33 years, that person explodes. It is interesting to bring older people too, but it is something else, it is another profile", he reflects.