What ideas do you have to bring the Spanish Institute of Oceanography (IEO) back to the Canary Islands?
As it is a national body, it largely depends on the management made by the central services. For this reason, we hope that the merger with the Higher Council for Scientific Research (CSIC) will materialize as soon as possible and we know that they are making progress in the drafting of the Royal Decree on the integration of Public Research Bodies (OPIs). It is true that the change that has taken place since the summer has been an enormous advance. The new management positions are very professional and especially the general secretary who is the one who manages the management. In fact, last week the fixed boxes were opened, with which we already have funds available. It is true that it is not yet for the execution of projects but at least for the expenses that could have a huge effect. The new management team has also told us that it is going to start opening specific project items, which is what we have been asking from InvestOpi for many years, and that will be between now and the end of the year. With regard to what we can do from the Canary Islands, this is about speeding up, but I must point out that the directors who have been before me have done it wonderfully. Another important job I want to do is to promote the center, but not only at the international level but also at the national level within the body itself. The most important thing is the staffing of the center. The Canary Islands are not the same as in the rest of the Oceanographic Centers in Spain in the sense that practically those of us who are in the center work in collaboration with the Canarian universities. Meanwhile, the center of Vigo works with La Coruña or Santander or Gijón because they are very close. As this is not the case here, the staffing has to be sufficient to have that independence in terms of work, and right now we are the third smallest center in staffing of civil servants. This means that project requests are smaller and not because we are less savvy, it is a matter of critical mass. It is something that I have discussed with the director and that I will continue to insist. The endowment has to be sufficient so that there is critical mass and here what I speak is, specifically of investigation.
So what is missing are researchers?
We are only 17 of the 47 workers in the entire center. For example, we do not have zooplakton experts, and the colleague who runs fisheries in Africa retires at the end of the year. The same is true in other areas, because we don’t have a chemistry expert either. We must apply pressure. If before I did it as a researcher, now I will continue to do it as a director to stimulate the center, because the only way to enhance knowledge is for there to be a critical mass.
Can a research project be lost due to this stoppage of activity?
No, I do not think so. The organism’s situation, or at least the most dramatic part, has coincided with Covid-19. Right now we would have a campaign in the middle of the South Atlantic, but with the pandemic that campaign is delayed for at least a year because all ports in South America are closed. The ship commission is not clear about what to do because campaigns like this one in the South Atlantic usually stop in Brazil or Argentina or Chile, it depends on how it squares and many ports are closed. The pandemic has coincided with many projects but I don’t think they will be lost; next year we will recover.
Will there be a campaign in November?
At the end it is not November, as had been contemplated, but in December. Certainly the people who coordinate the ships – who do not depend on the IEO – are making a great effort, it is tremendous to try to cover all the gaps in a situation like the current one. But I don’t think there is a big loss, especially since we are recovering.
You warned that there was going to be a very large loss of data.
We talked about that in February, which was the first time that a campaign had not been carried out since 2006. But of course, then the campaign was not carried out due to Covid-19. It was not a matter of the IEO but rather that we all stayed locked up at home.
In this regard, many researchers from the Islands have urged the Government of the Canary Islands to finance another vessel for oceanographic research. What is your position?
It is true that until now, within the framework of the IEO’s ongoing projects, ships have been accommodating them. In fact, normally the ship comes twice a year and is here for three months. But of course, that is not the same as having your own boat that can finance your own community projects as it happens in other regions or countries. In the case of the Canary Islands, the usual reference is Hawaii, which has its own boats and the amount of research that is financed directly by the community is much higher. It is not that right now there is no room, but with its own boat the community could obviously do much more, because the potential of the community in marine sciences – with the IEO, the Institute of Oceanography and Global Change (IOCAG), the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria (ULPGC) and the University of La Laguna (ULL) – it is huge and cannot be fully exploited. It is always subject to the existence of National Plan projects and, furthermore, Canary Islands projects cannot finance boat time. If you have your own boat and your own research program gives you boat time, it is a huge benefit.
Could an alliance between institutions be created to urge the Government of the Canary Islands to try to buy its own boat?
It can be done, although they are more long-term things and they transcend me. But it can. An example is in Galicia, where they acquired a boat with community participation. Something similar can or could have been done between the Canary Islands, the Ministry of Science, either with IEO or CSIC ships. That is the way. Now what is needed is a clear will on the part of the autonomous government, as if the one that Galicia had that participated actively, that is, also with funding. Today co-financing is not easy, but it is feasible because there are even European funds that can be used.
In fact, the Canary Islands could have ERDF funds and it could be cheaper.
Exactly. I could do the work of interlocutor with the Ministry. I think it’s very interesting. A ship in the Archipelago would interact with Madeira, Azores, the countries of North Africa and Cape Verde. And then it is an interesting area. In fact, in Cape Verde, Germany has set up a research center and they have a small oceanographic vessel that provides support, not permanently, but to research in Cape Verde.
How important is oceanographic research for the Canary Islands at this time when we are so close to climate change?
Basically the training of highly qualified personnel, with critical capacity, which has a direct impact on society. But not only that, you also attract resources, that you can return resources to the Canary Islands. In addition, environmental and marine observation is something that is necessary, since there is going to be a determining impact on the climate and every time we need the predictions to be more precise. Finally it is the creation of technology companies. One country that has done very well is France, at the French Research Institute for the Exploration of the Sea (Ifremer). Part of its researchers became independent and formed a company that manufactures buoys, which today constitute a quarter of the ones we have floating in the Argo program. Ten years later, it is more than making up for the bad investment they made.
Before we went over the issue of the integration of the CSIC and I would like to stop here because at the beginning there was a lot of controversy, how is the situation now?
Certainly in the case of the IEO, from the point of view of the controversy that was created at the beginning of the news, I would say that there is practically no controversy. The organization does not lose its identity or its strength, which is that many centers can work together towards the same goal. Budgets are not lost either, so the difference is practically none, except for all the profit that is gained in terms of management. I am sure that many people prefer that there is not this merger to the Council, but there is not that enormous reluctance that there was two or three months ago when they made the announcement.
They were in an extreme situation. They had to decide or die or integrate.
Yes. And we continue to be in that situation. They are improving many things in terms of management, but we have to bear in mind that public budget procedures, apart from consuming human resources, are very cumbersome. They have a series of rules that if you do not comply with them, you cannot even include that budget that, on many occasions, you have already entered. Conducting contracted research is complicated and that will not be resolved by being independent at IEO for a long time. So the alternative of being part of an organization where that is simpler and that has much more negotiation capacity with the Ministry of Finance, is ideal.
Does the Science Plan proposed by Pedro Duque’s Ministry change in any way the bureaucratic mess to which researchers are subjected?
It is talked about lightly, but from my point of view it does not get fully involved in solving this problem that is going to continue to affect science enormously. At bottom, it is a huge waste of talent that someone who can do science has to waste his time worrying about the coordination between the budget of the European Union and those of the Institute.
Researchers say that bureaucracy has been the cancer of science in Spain for years.
Keep it up. The Science Plan comes to solve many things, but bureaucracy will continue to be a huge problem. I give you an example, to make the agreement for a student internship it can take up to 6 months. In fact, we have students who want to do an internship at the plant and there is no agreement and, therefore, they cannot come. It is true that the complexity of the procedures is not very great, but the problem is in all the steps that you must take up and down. Every time something is missing, you have to start over. If there were a clear but long procedure, we would know what we have to do, but today everything is diffuse.
Have you seen any improvement in the Science Plan that will benefit you in the future?
There is an increase in the endowment of research projects and in the number of scholarships and, as regards the IEO, it has been endowed with the construction of a new ship that replaces the largest ship that the Institute had and that was retired ago. 3 years. This new ship allows research around the world, so it represents a huge advance and covers a need that the body had. We could suggest many more things to the Plan, because for example, for me the most important thing is that they get fully involved in solving bureaucratic problems, but there are improvements in general terms.