In April Salvador Martinez became director of the Instituto de Neurociencias de Alicante, a joint research centre of the Spanish Research Council (CSIC) and the Universidad Miguel Hernández de Elche (UMH). Founded in 1990, the institute is now one of the largest neuroscience research centre in Spain, with about 240 scientists.
Martinez shares with FENS his thoughts about his plans, the scientific diaspora and the general situation for neuroscience research in Spain. Interview by Maria Luz Montesinos (member of the FENS communication committee).
As new director, what are your plans for the next years?
SM: My first commitment is to maintain the excellent level and quality of our scientific production. But I also want to improve our core support core research facilities and laboratories, and continue our high level of international teaching. Our International Masters in Neuroscience (officially UMH masters course) has a programme of student interchange with the Institute Pasteur (Paris), in development and plasticity of the nervous system.
In addition, I will be aiming to increase the presence of the Instituto de Neurociencias in national and international decision-making forums on brain research.
The Instituto de Neurociencias de Alicante was elected “Severo Ochoa” Centre of Excellence in 2014, a distinction that provides €1 million euro per year for research activities for four years. What has been the impact of this recognition for the institute?
SM: This prestigious accreditation represents a significant improvement in our scientific prospective. It is really difficult to obtain adequate funding to develop and maintain competitive scientific research in our country, so this gives an opportunity to address more competitive and ambitious research projects and education programmes, improving intramural and extramural collaborations. For example, we have issued a call for collaborative intramural projects looking for new experimental paradigms to design novel approaches to common scientific problems. We are also investing in new independent junior groups; we consider this way the safest investment for the future. The Severo Ochoa Programme will provide crucial leverage here.
How do you see the present and the future of neuroscience in Spain?
SM: It is hard to see a significant future for scientific research in general in Spain. At present, the minimal national investment in science (designed to maintain the R&D system under vestigial proportions, in 2014 Spain R&D investment was the same that in 2004) and the virtual absence of any alternative resources from private funds, make it impossible to reach the scientific level that are achieved by other countries of our socio-economic level. But against this dismal background, Spain is still relevant in neuroscience research; national neuroscience institutes like my own are all trying to maintain the research quality at good and competitive level.
What impact do you think that scientific diaspora will have on Spanish neuroscience?
SM: The loss of scientific talent during this decade of crisis has been very significant. Keep in mind that together with the brain drain, it has become increasingly difficult for young scientists who have developed their research abroad - and represent the future of our research groups – to find a job in Spain to return to. The lack of research positions in universities and the National Research Council (CSIC) has also driven many good scientists out of our scientific system altogether. Even if economic investment recovers, the loss of talent will be a burden that will have more lasting impact on the scientific development of our country.
What do you think the government could best do to encourage the development of neuroscience in the country?
SM: We need a change of mentality in our politics to one in which scientific research is incorporated as a basic strategic element to nurture education, medicine and innovation.
National and regional governments all have competences for scientific research, but all are inadequate – and private inversion in Spain is even more vestigial.
The problem of Spanish science is systemic in the whole country. I predict that if investment in science were to be significantly increased at all levels this would lead to an exponential increase in quality and competitively of research, the recovery of our talented young scientists with their new ideas and a clear impact on the economy.