Leveraging Spanish researchers abroad to foster Spanish industry innovation

Over the years I’ve been quite impressed by Innovate UK and Scottish Enterprise programmes, with their role in a thriving pharma and biomedical industry. In this post I am writing down my thoughts about learning from their experience, to propose a new strategy to promote innovation in low industrialisation regions, like most in Spain are.

Because of several interlinked reasons, Spanish academic science struggles to connect with industrial development, and I believe Spain could use the many labs abroad run by spaniards with this goal. With Spanish national and regional R&D funding, I’d like to see a programme based on Innovate UK’s Knowledge Transfer Partnerships that leverages the many Spanish researchers abroad to foster Spanish industry innovation. The programme would help companies to grow by linking them with an Spanish academic abroad and by providing funding for a graduate, to carry out a transfer project that can bring the knowledge and connections of the labs abroad into a Spanish company.

I keep comparing the UK system to the Spanish one. Whenever I travel back home I get into discussions about why Spanish science and innovation lag behind other first world economies. The problem is complex and has been studied thoroughly. Solutions are known. It is known that public funding is too low to make a difference and that structure at many levels goes against, instead of for innovation. Several features feed negatively the Spanish system: very limited investment in basic science, not enough critical mass of local industry clusters, structural shortcomings in the recruitment and promotion of academic talent, limited financial resources for entrepreneurship, government programs that are a red tape nightmare. Surprisingly maybe, Spanish researchers seem to be eagerly recruited all around the world. The number of Spanish researchers abroad has gone up quickly in the last decade, and there are stablished networks in many countries, like this one in the UK.

The desertion of public institutions

It’s nearly impossible to improve performance when the national 2018 public R&D budget saves only €2.8 billion for direct funding of the public research system, and the total €7 billion budget is hugely inflated with loans for industrial R&D that few companies ever apply for. It is enlightening and saddening to compare these efforts with those of other EU countries. Germany actually spent – not budgeted or inflated, but spent – €26,5 billion in public funded R&D in 2015, and German industry spent €61 billion. The United Kingdom spent £10,9 billion in public R&D in 2016, their industry £22,1 billion. From the Spanish point of view the UK is I believe more comparable and worth a closer look. The UK has managed to quite successfully leverage industrial R&D in the last decade, even if their public R&D budget per capita is not high compared to other countries with similar GDP. Also, Spain and the UK have both only about 20% of their GDP coming from industrial activity, while Germany has closer to 30%. Since the 2008 crisis the UK has managed to maintain the share of their manufacturing/industrial sector, while Spain has seen it decrease worryingly.

The Kelpies in Falkirk, north-east of Glasgow. A monument in a new extension to the Forth and Clyde Canal “intended to celebrate the horse’s role in industry and agriculture.”

The 2008 economic crisis hit Spain hard, but we should have a higher budget for R&D nevertheless. The latest Global Competitiveness Report 2015-2016 rates Spain in the 37th place in the pillar of Innovation, while by GDP per capita we are around 30th. It seems to me that we could do better in supporting science and innovation based development. Sometimes I can’t help but think that those with the power to make decisions don’t believe innovation can foster progress in Spain, and are actually trying to spend as little money as possible. I believe many government officials understand the problem but have concluded that we won’t get enough back from innovation to make it worth anyway. They have seen strategies widely believed to generate regional development failing to work in Spanish regions with low industrialisation and barely making it even in the two or three more competitive regions.

It’s obviously not an idea that would work alone without increased funding in R&D, but maybe to foster industrial development Spain could try to use the advantage of having thousands of excellent Spanish scientists in many of the best research institutions in the world.