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RIO Country Report Spain 2015

The annual RIO Country Report offers an analysis of the R&I system in Spain, including relevant policies and funding, with particular focus on topics critical for EU policies. The report identifies the main challenges of the Spanish research and innovation system and assesses the policy response.


R&I Challenges

Improving the public labour market for researchers

Challenge description: 

Human resource constraint is considered the most pressing challenge of the Spanish research and innovation (R&I) system. Three main reasons have been proposed to be the principal causes of this challenge.

The first one is directly linked to the economic crisis. Since 2008, the main consequence of research and development (R&D) budget reductions has been the non-renewal of temporary researchers’ contracts. This has resulted in a drastic reduction in the possibilities for young researchers to obtain a stable position of employment. Since 2010, the employment rate for those with a PhD qualification has been constantly decreasing, while the number of students graduating with a PhD has increased every year, from 7 150 in 2007 to 9 483 in 2012.

The second factor has a more systemic nature and is linked to the structure of the research system. The Spanish labour market for researchers is characterised by a singular duality. On one hand, civil servants form the core permanent staff at universities and public research organisations (PROs). On the other hand, non-civil servants, most often young researchers, are generally contracted temporarily. This duality is accompanied by a change, over time, in the possibility of obtaining a civil servant position (which can be obtained only through public competition); this means that the career of a researcher in Spain is highly dependent on the availability of permanent positions. Since the beginning of the economic crisis, the availability of such positions has been very limited because of budget restrictions. Furthermore, while formally the recruitment process for permanent research positions at university is open, in reality tacit mechanisms favour insiders (i.e. researchers from the same university) rather than external candidates. Of the EU Member States, Spain has one of the highest rates of endogamy in its university system (measured by the proportion of staff that obtained their PhD in the university at which they work).

Finally, the third factor that explains the increasing unemployment rate among recently graduated PhD researchers is the limited access to research project funds for researchers with temporary contracts. Generally, application processes for project funding favour researchers with permanent positions. This requirement drastically reduces the options for young researchers with regard to applying for funding.

Policy Response: 

In the last few years, Spain has deployed a number of formal policy responses to improve, among other things, the public labour market for researchers. Law 14/2011 on Science, Technology and Innovation, and, subsequently, two strategic documents, namely the Spanish Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation (2013–2020) and the National/State Plan for Scientific, Technical Research and Innovation (2013–2016), have established or reinforced several instruments for strengthening human resources for science, technology and innovation (STI), including additional resources for doctoral and postdoctoral training grants and the introduction of mobility schemes. Among these, the ‘Ramón y Cajal’ contracts facilitate the recruitment of national and foreign researchers. They include an initial grant to start a research project in Spain and an additional EUR 100 000 for institutions that award researchers permanent contracts after five years of activity. In addition, Law 14/2011 on Science, Technology and Innovation confirmed the ‘Profesor Contratado Doctor’ contract, created in 2001, and included the ‘Investigador distinguido’ contract, in order to offer stable contracts to non-civil servant researchers. To complement these measures, the government increased the replacement rate for retirees from 10% to a maximum of 50% for 2015 and to a maximum of 100% for 2016.

Policy assessment: 

At the same time as the adoption of these strategic policy documents meant to improve the human resource situation in the public research system, drastic budget cuts often hindered the implementation of these policies. As a result, the demography of the research system remains a pressing problem for Spanish R&I.

Throughout the research system (i.e. institutes and universities), an alternative path is needed to move research careers away from the standard civil service model. This could include the further strengthening of positions such as the ‘Professor Contratado Doctor’ or the further implementation of the ‘Contrato de investigador distinguido’ envisaged by Law 14/2011. So far, the number of such positions is very low and they have not been translated into stable contracts.

Improving funding and governance of the public research system

Challenge description: 

Since the beginning of the crisis, the considerable reduction of GBAORD between 2009 and 2013 (by 39 %) has limited Spain’s growth potential. The central government’s budget for public expenditure on R&I in 2014 and 2015 indicates that the decreasing trend has been halted; however, budget levels remain at the 2005–2006 level. In this context, it is still essential that new sources of funding are identified and that the effective and efficient use of resources is ensured (Council Recommendation, 2015). In addition to the lack of flexibility of the public research system (see Challenge 1), two main factors are considered to inhibit national research performance.

The first one is directly linked to the drastic reduction of public funding for research. Between 2008 and 2013, the amount of competitive funding financed from the state budget decreased by 62 %. The second factor that influences national research outputs is the weakness of the incentives for research performance. Decisions on whether or not to award funding to universities are generally based on criteria related to the number of students and teachers without capturing research performance. Spain’s performance, as based on scientific publications, is at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) median, although the ratio of public R&D expenditure to GDP is slightly below.

Policy Response: 

Law 14/2011 on Science, Technology and Innovation and, subsequently, the Spanish Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation (2013–2020) and the National/State Plan for Scientific, Technical Research and Innovation (2013–2016) present a set of comprehensive policies and reforms aimed at improving the research system.

One of the most emblematic measures aimed at increasing the national research performance was the creation of the National Research Agency. This organisation, already foreseen in the Law on Science (2011), is tasked with the efficient management of R&D investment through the elaboration and implementation of Spanish research funding policy. The Agency is expected to foster independent peer reviews of projects by international experts and evaluations based on the innovative capacity of projects. Since 2011, the creation of the National Research Agency has been suggested in each country-specific recommendation. The Agency was created in November 2015.

In addition to the creation of the National Research Agency, the Spanish policy framework aims to improve researchers’ productivity through an individual-level incentive system: the sexenio. In this scheme, a bonus is provided on the basis of a favourable assessment of research outputs. These bonuses can consist of pay supplements, the ability to participate in academic decision-making bodies at universities, a reduction in teaching activities, an increase in research activities, etc.

Complementary to the elaboration of policy measures, the evolution of the central government’s budget for public expenditure on R&D over the last two years indicates that the decreasing trend has been halted. In 2015, the national budget for public spending on R&I increased by 4.8 %. However, this is partly because of a large increase in military-related R&I spending. Moreover, the 2015 budget included funds to reimburse multiannual R&I project grants committed in previous exercises. Therefore, in practice, only a small proportion of the increase in the public R&I budget will be available to support the national strategy for STI.

Policy assessment: 

Despite the progress made and the implementation of important reforms (such as the creation of the National Research Agency), insufficient funding and structural weaknesses in the research system continue to limit Spain’s growth potential . Generally, a change in the government’s perception, that public research funding is an expenditure that should be delayed until sufficient economic growth has been achieved, is needed. Rather, such funding should be considered a core part of the economic strategy for recovery. Therefore, the European Research Area and Innovation Committee (ERAC) peer review panel recommends progressively increasing public funding for research in order to reach a target of 0.7 % of GDP by 2017.

Promoting a culture for innovation, and stimulating performance in business research and development and innovation

Challenge description: 

The Spanish industrial structure is characterised by a significant proportion of small and medium-sized firms in low-tech traditional sectors. It lacks large private investors with a leading role in creating R&D-related networks. Furthermore, since the beginning of the crisis in 2008, Spain has faced a dramatic reduction in the number of companies active in R&D, which has decreased from 12 997 in 2008 to 7 628 in 2014.

While the economic crisis remains the direct determinant of the low level of R&D activities, longer-term structural challenges need to be highlighted. Over the decade 2000–2009, the considerable increase in public and private R&D expenditure did not significantly boost innovation in Spain. During this period, the country made little progress in accumulating intellectual assets (e.g. patent applications, community trademarks and designs), improving public–private and private–private partnerships or introducing new innovative products, processes and services. These characteristics suggest that the low engagement of business with R&I can partly be ascribed to a lack of innovation-friendly framework conditions and to a limited innovation culture.

Policy Response: 

Spain has designed a large number of support schemes to foster R&D activities, to increase knowledge transfer between public and private sectors and, more generally, to increase innovation culture. In 2011, the Law on Science, Technology and Innovation introduced several changes in order to improve knowledge transfer mechanisms. It encourages, for example, the creation of technological spin-off companies by allowing researchers to work part-time in private companies that were created by the organisations for which they originally worked. The Spanish Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation (2013–2020), established in 2013, explicitly mentions, as one of its four goals, the promotion of business leadership in research and development. The National/State Plan for Scientific, Technical Research and Innovation (2013–2016) also encourages the creation of university spin-offs and public–private research cooperation. To complement this, several programmes have been launched to promote innovation clusters and knowledge transfer mechanisms.

Policy assessment: 

There has been no systematic evaluation of the policy measures that aim to encourage knowledge transfer and improvements in the innovation culture; however, the development of an institutional framework shows that there is a definite will to improve the amount and scope of R&I activities. Still, there is a need for nationwide public–private partnerships geared towards innovation that gather the best resources from both private and public sectors. To do this, the implementation of the agenda set by the Spanish Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation (2013–2020) should be accelerated, both at the national and regional levels. The absence of a sufficient number of small and medium-size companies that perform R&I activities is still a major structural weakness of the innovation system.

Stimulating regional research and innovation potential and performance

Challenge description: 

Out of the 17 Spanish autonomous communities, only two – the Basque Country and Navarra – display a R&D intensity above the EU average and are considered, by the Innovation Union Scoreboard, to be ‘Innovation Followers’. The other 15 regions fall into the category of ‘Moderate Innovators’, for which R&D intensity is below the EU average. In addition, R&D activities are highly concentrated in four regions, which accounted for 70.4 % of all R&D expenditure in 2013: Madrid (25.8 %), Catalonia (22.9 %), Andalusia (11.4 %) and the Basque Country (10.2 %). This fragmentation creates important challenges for the Spanish R&I system with regard to stimulating R&I potential and performance.

Policy Response: 

Law 14/2011, namely the Spanish Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation (2013–2020), was jointly elaborated by the state and the autonomous communities and is presented as a ‘RDI political agenda which includes coordination between the actions of the General State Administration, the Autonomous Regions and the European Union’.

This document has been complemented by the adoption, in 2014, of Smart Specialisation Strategies in each autonomous community. These strategies aim to identify comparative advantages for each region and take into account the diversity of regional potential. In the case of Spain, many of the autonomous communities focus on similar priorities: sustainable agriculture and natural resources (14 regions); intelligent and sustainable transport (13 regions); sustainable energy (9 regions); and digital society (9 regions). Except in the cases of La Rioja, Navarra, Cantabria, Castilla-La Mancha and Castilla y León, the Spanish regions have not yet adopted any action plan to implement their smart specialization strategy.

Policy assessment: 

While the adoption of a national strategy for science, technology and innovation and the complementary regional Smart Specialisation Strategies offer a policy framework that grasps the diversity of territories and the priorities in Spain, there is still substantial room for improvement.

In particular, for some autonomous communities, the elaboration of Smart Specialisation Strategies might have consisted of a replication of Spanish priorities, with little strategic work being carried out to identify genuine regional strength. In addition, most regional strategies do not include any mechanism for cooperation with other Spanish regions.

Promoting an effective policy evaluation mechanism

Challenge description: 

Despite an intention to establish a culture of policy monitoring and evaluation across the whole R&I system, effective instruments to achieve this goal are still limited. To achieve efficiency and accountability in all public administration actions linked to the promotion of research, development and innovation (RDI), the Spanish Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation (2013–2020) foresees ‘the setting up of an integrated information system and the improvement of the quality of indicators for monitoring the actions funded by the Public Administrations and their impact’. While the integrated information system has been developed through a Platform for research and innovation (PAID), further steps are expected to improve the monitoring system. In addition to the creation of a national research agency, the elaboration of two policy intelligence tools is recommended.

The first one is a policy-oriented monitoring system. This system would gather detailed and regular information on the policies that have been implemented (including ex post data on project results), and link these in a coherent framework structured according to the Strategy’s goals.

The second tool is a common evaluation system based on international evaluation standards at different levels (i.e. programmes, institutions and laboratories). This would probably involve the combination of different existing evaluation systems under a national umbrella with independent governance. This could take the form of a think tank with operational capabilities (e.g. foresight, econometrics of the research system).

Policy Response: 

The need to improve the policy evaluation culture is recognised by the Spanish Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation (2013–2020), which sets out the intention to reinforce a culture of policy monitoring, accountability and evaluation of the system.

Today, the Secretary of State for R&I, with the support of the Spanish Foundation for Science and Technology (FECYT) and the Centre for Industrial and Technological Development (CDTI), carries out the monitoring of the national plan policies and most of the business-oriented R&I policies. However, the reports produced mainly relate to how funding is distributed and generally lack a proper assessment of the quality and efficiency of the funding mechanisms. Strategies and plans are increasingly based on some of the evaluation analyses, but these are not always publicly available. Nonetheless, a range of studies has been carried out by different stakeholders (e.g. the Spanish Confederation of Scientific Societies (COSCE) and the COTEC Foundation) and academics which could help to improve the policy-making process.

Policy assessment: 

In general terms, the evaluation system would benefit from better integration into the policy system, and from the generalisation and standardisation of a common evaluation system with international evaluation standards that work at different levels (programmes, institutions, etc.). Information on R&I indicators and policies is increasingly collected systematically by different stakeholders, indicating that the implementation of this monitoring system is currently feasible. It is worth mentioning that the evaluation culture of the Spanish R&I system is dominated by an auditing function because of strict requirements with regard to public accountability from the Ministry of Finance over a learning function, which diminishes the opportunities to implement an integrated monitoring policy system. Also, the establishment of the National Research Agency has provided a good opportunity to reinforce evaluation practices.


1. Overview of the R&I system

Spain is one of the EU Member States that has been hardest hit by the financial and economic crisis that started in 2008. Before the crisis, during the 2002–2008 periods, gross expenditure on research and development (GERD) had doubled in absolute terms and the increase in relative terms was also remarkable: GERD, as a percentage of gross domestic products (GDP), reached an intensity of 1.35 % in 2009. Since 2009, overall R&D intensity has decreased: in 2014, it had decreased to 1.20 %. Today, research and development (R&D) funding indicators suggest a decreasing trend. Government budget appropriations or outlays on R&D (GBAORD) were €5 776 million in 2014, lower than in 2006 (EUR 6 737.4 million).

Direct government expenditure on R&D (i.e. GERD by the government) has declined monotonically since the start of the crisis in 2009. Public budgets for R&D from the State have also been greatly reduced: from EUR 9 673 million in 2009 to EUR 6 406.5 million in 2015 (i.e. from 2.52 % to 1.46 % of the total central budget). This 2015 share of the total central budget is similar to the R&D budget of 2001 (i.e. 1.49 %) (ICONO-Ministry of Finance -MINHAP, 2015). Although they have increased in recent years, the contributions to R&D from the European Commission and from indirect public support remain too marginal to compensate for the decline in direct public funding.

2. Recent developments in research and innovation policy and systems

Key developments in the R&I system in 2015 include:

- In November 2015, Royal Decree 1067/2015 approved the creation of the Spanish Research Agency. This Agency should formally be created in 2016. It aims to be an autonomous entity that assigns R&D funding, monitors and evaluates research projects. The Agency will follow principles of transparency and efficiency to simplify administrative procedures related to project funding.

- The replacement rate of retirees for public research organisations was increased in 2015 from 10% to 50%. A new maximum of 100% was set for 2016. In 2011, regulatory measures to correct the public deficit (e.g. Royal Decree-Law 20/2011) had limited staff recruitment and the filling of positions left vacant by retirees in the public research sector to 10%.

- The 2015, the release of a new roadmap of research infrastructure was announced as part of the National Reform Programme.

The main national public programmes to stimulate research and innovation in the private sector are included in the “Business leadership programme” and in the “Promotion of R&I towards societal challenges programme”. Both programs are part of the State Plan of Scientific and Technical Research and Innovation (2013-2016).

3. Public and private funding of R&I and expenditure

Spain’s R&D intensity (GERD as a percentage of GDP) has been decreasing since 2009, and has decreased even further below the EU average. Spanish R&D intensity was 1.2 % in 2014 (1.32 % in 2011), which is below the EU-28 average of 2.03 % (see Table 3 below for the latest Eurostat data for 2011–2015). Spanish R&D intensity has returned to 2007 levels (1.23 %). On a per-capita basis, GERD in Spain amounted to EUR 273.6 in 2014 (EUR 303.9 in 2011), which is less than half of the European average (EUR 558.4). The GBAORD in Spain and its regions has been decreasing significantly over the last four years. In 2014, GBAORD decreased again by 5.7 %, to EUR 5 360 million. The amount of funding for R&D provided by the enterprise sector as a percentage of GDP declined slightly from 0.58 % in 2011 to 0.57 % in 2013, which is far less than the European average of 1.12 %.

4. Quality of science base and priorities of the European Research Area

Spain is aligned with many ERA policies, but the R&I System suffers from low levels of institutional autonomy with regard to management and from rigidities due to a dual labour market for researchers (civil servants versus non-civil servants). The existence of a dual labour market has caused non-permanent researchers in particular to suffer the consequences of the budget reductions in R&D, thus making human resource management the most urgent problem of the Spanish research system.

5. Framework conditions for R&I and science-business cooperation

Spain stands 74th in the ranking of 189 countries in relation to the ease of starting a new business and 23rd with regard to the ease of resolving insolvency. Through the Entrepreneurship and Internationalisation Support Act (Law 14/2013), Spain has improved its legal framework for doing business and becoming an entrepreneur. Among the changes, the new legislation has limited the responsibility of entrepreneurs and included provisions for granting new opportunities to those that have failed in their entrepreneurial venture.

6. Conclusions

This chapter summarizes relevant policy actions and assesses their appropriateness, efficiency and effectiveness regarding their ability to tackle R&I challenges.

Geo coverage
Report year
Official publication date
Friday, 8 July, 2016
Country Report file
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