Administrative Hurdles Delay PhD Scholarships in Spain

It’s not uncommon for young researchers in Spain to start a Ph.D. before knowing for sure whether they’ve secured funding. But this year, the economic crisis is dragging Spanish bureaucracy down to new depths—and making things more difficult than ever for aspiring researchers aiming to start their scientific training.

This past September, hundreds of students started their Ph.D. programs without financial support as they waited to hear from the government whether their scholarship applications had been funded. In late November, some of them finally got good news, but the rest are still waiting, torn between their desire to pursue science in their country and the increasingly bleak prospects of a scientific future in Spain.

“The time has come when one wonders whether it really is worthwhile to keep fighting in order to continue here.” —Carmen Muñoz-Ballester

Young researchers who wish to pursue a Ph.D. in Spain with Spanish government support can apply for scholarships from two main sources: the research staff training program (Formación de Personal Investigador, or FPI), which is managed by the Secretariat of State of Investigation, Development, and Innovation, and the university teaching staff training program (Formación del Profesorado Universitario, or FPU), which is managed by the Secretariat of State of Education, Professional Training, and Universities.

In February, the government launched its 2012 call for the FPI program, offering 1020 scholarships. In July—just in time to prepare for the new academic year—the state secretariat for investigation published a list of applicants preselected for funding. The FPI final announcement “is always scheduled in such a way that it falls more or less when the new graduates finish their studies and they can join their working places after the summer, in September,” says Ricardo Graña Montes, a third-year doctoral trainee working at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. Graña is also a member of the Spanish Federation of Young Investigators.

But this year, when the new academic year started, the final FPI winners hadn’t yet been notified. At the beginning of August, the state secretariat for investigation gave itself another 3 months to announce the final outcome of the applications. Three months later, there was still no official notification and the young researchers expecting FPI funding were getting anxious. “We were … very, very scared … that they would deny the grants to us all,” says Jorge Mariano Collantes Alegre, a Ph.D. trainee in evolutionary genetics at the University of Valencia who had applied for a FPI grant.

By then, many applicants—including Collantes—had been working for months on their Ph.D. projects, most without financial support. The laboratories they were working in weren’t much help: Cuts to Spanish science have left most Spanish labs without funds that could be used to support the young researchers. Scholarship recipients are forbidden to have outside jobs, so many applicants were unwilling to take that risk. Collantes has been helping out at his dad’s coffee machine company in exchange for family support.

For FPI applicants, relief finally came in late November when the state secretariat for investigation announced a final list of winners. The scholarship winners won’t be paid for the months they’ve already worked, but they will have 4 years of funding available starting in December or January, a ministry spokesperson says, if the full amount is still needed. The fees that the FPI scholars paid to the universities will also be reimbursed.

For FPU applicants, the situation is much more difficult. The 2012 FPU call in May announced 950 scholarships. At the beginning of September, a preliminary screening yielded a list of semifinalists with about three times that many names. A second round of screening was expected to reduce the list to about 950 names, but no such list of finalists was ever issued.

This is hardly the first time that there have been delays in the FPU program. The usual pattern is that delays occur, the young researchers protest, and the problem is resolved, Graña says. But this year has been worse. In mid-November, the state secretary for education eliminated 150 FPU awards and trimmed about 450 names from the list of semifinalists. According to applicants still in the running, they’re now being asked to submit documents that FPU says are missing, even though, in at least some cases, the requested documents are available on the state secretariat’s own Web site. The request for documents looks like an attempt “to try and delay the process more,” says Carmen Muñoz-Ballester, an FPU applicant at the Institute of Biomedicine of Valencia.

The education ministry didn’t reply to Science Careers’s requests for comments, but on Wednesday, the education minister announced in Congress that cutting the FPU program had been “very painful” but necessary given the current economic situation and the overproduction of doctorates compared with the numbers that the Spanish universities and research centers will be able to absorb in the coming years. The minister added that a final list of winners was ready and would be issued on 20 December.

FPU program delays have also affected FPU scholars from previous years. FPU scholarship holders are invited to apply for funding for short or extended visits abroad. But after the budget cuts, the number of grants available for short stays was cut almost in half, from 950 to 500. Graña applied for an award to support a 4-month visit to Denmark to learn a computational molecular-dynamics technique for his research on disease-related protein aggregation, but his application failed. “It’s all the more annoying that … there were fewer than 950 applicants so the government would have saved itself money anyway,” Graña says.

These events have left Muñoz-Ballester feeling angry and powerless, like hundreds of other young Spanish scientists. “The time has come when one wonders whether it really is worthwhile to keep fighting in order to continue here, because really the [scientific] community is not valued, they have no respect for the work that we are doing, and there is an absolute pessimism” among scientists, she says. “Moreover, the problem is not just having the scholarship or not, but the cuts that are being made to the projects, the centers, and everything cause us to doubt whether we will manage to develop a thesis.” Muñoz-Ballester is busy applying for doctoral programs abroad, intending to follow many other young scientists who have left Spain.

The situation has convinced some new graduates to avoid entering Ph.D. programs. Instead of pursuing a Ph.D. after completing his master’s degree at the University of Valencia, Fernando Cervera Rodríguez launched a company to produce laboratory proteins, with two other biologists and a computer scientist. He would have very much liked to do a Ph.D., he says, but for him it was a matter of dignity. The current situation with government funding has taught him how important it is to be self-reliant. Launching a company “is difficult, but at least it depends on us.”

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