When, in June, Miguel Ángel Quintanilla, the new Spanish Secretary of State for Universities and Research, described Ramón y Cajal (RyC) researchers as "postdoctoral and temporary," he deepened the angst of a group of accomplished scientists who have felt at odds with the research system they recently returned to from abroad with the assistance of these RyC fellowships.

Launched by the Spanish government in 2001, the Ramón y Cajal programme was intended to "strengthen the research capacity of the research and development groups and institutions" in Spain by injecting new blood into the system, according to the first official call for proposals. A cornerstone of the programme was mobility; in order to be eligible for the programme, candidates were required to have spent at least 18 months at a research centre other than the proposed host institution. With a 5-year contract, a good salary, and the possibility of gaining some research independence, RyC contracts offered Spanish expatriate scientists a deal that was too good to refuse. In the 5 years the programme has been running, about 2500 young researchers, most of them natives, have moved to Spain to accept RyC fellowships.

But enthusiasm about the programme's early success has been dampened by uncertainty over whether the programme will in fact create permanent space for RyC researchers within the Spanish system as the first calls promised. "The ultimate end of the Ramón y Cajal programme ... which aims to incorporate doctors into the Spanish centres for research and technological development," wrote the Science and Technology Ministry in the first call for proposals, "is to create the conditions for their integration into the Spanish science system. For this, the participation of universities, public research organisations, and other R&D centres, which are going to host these doctors for the development of new programmes, projects, or lines of investigation, is expected."

Encouraged by claims from government officials and some research centres, many young researchers saw in the Ramón y Cajal contract a promise for a permanent position; some left secure employment abroad to accept the fellowships, convinced that their contract was akin to a tenure-track position. But as the first contracts come to an end it has become clear that many host institutions are reluctant to offer RyC fellows permanent employment. RyC researchers have long been aware of the problem, but Quintanilla´s recent comments cut them to the quick. RyC fellows interpreted them as either a sign of the minister's ignorance of their situation or an attempt to shirk his and the government's responsibilities.

"When our recently named secretary of state for science and research says in a public interview that RyC programme is just a fixed-term postdoc position he is redefining [at his own convenience] the purpose of the RyC programme created by [his] Ministry," writes Ana Maria Mancho, a former RyC researcher, in an e-mail. "Implicitly he does not want [to] recognise the problems that Spain has related to human resources and … [the] problems generating opportunities for young scientists. My impression is that he is trying to deny the problems in order to avoid his duties."

The Ramón y Cajal programme at its best--and at its worse

Mancho got the best the Ramón y Cajal programme had to offer. She left Spain in 2001 for a postdoc at the School of Mathematics at Bristol University in the U.K., and returned to Spain in 2003 with a Ramón y Cajal contract at the Department of Mathematics at the Spanish Higher Research Council's (CSIC) Instituto de Matemática y Física Fundamental . "My duties here in the department since my arrival certainly have not been those of a fixed-term postdoc. I have been co-advisor of three Ph.D. students. I have got funds for research, both as a leader and as group member with researchers of my department and other institutions," writes Mancho. Just 3 years into her RyC contract, she won a permanent position in an open call. Things worked out well for her partly because her department "was growing and was aware of the need to support new and young scientists. Senior researchers here used the RyC programme with its right spirit as a mean[s] to hire young scientists to whom they offered expectations for a permanent post."

“Not everyone has been so lucky," writes Juan Manuel Lopez, a RyC fellow from the CSIC’s Instituto de Física de Cantabria . "RyC researchers have been considered almost anything: fellows on a bursary, postdocs, independent researchers, all depending on the hiring institution or university." Some RyC fellows, he writes, have been refused an opportunity to teach. Others have been rejected when applying for Ph.D. students or research grants. "It has all been very unfair for many, [and] those are likely to be, after 5 years of neglect, fired in 5 months." Lopez himself is among the lucky ones, since his institution has honoured its--and the RyC programme's--commitments to give him a chance. "I am lucky that I got a permanent researcher position at CSIC." But if he had been at a different institution, he says, "it could have been otherwise.

"It is difficult to predict how many of the 774 researchers who were awarded a RyC fellowship in 2001 will be left in a lurch when their 5-year term ends in the next academic year. A survey of the 2001 cohort released in March by the National Association of Ramón y Cajal Researchers (ANIRC) found that 55% of respondents from the 2001 cohort were still without a permanent job. Of these, 10% said their institute had clear plans to offer a permanent contract; the other 45% were unsure about their institution's plans.

Each institution has been left to grapple with the issue in its own way. According to the ANIRC some, like the University of Córdoba, are offering all RyC fellows permanent contracts after their fourth year. Others, like the CSIC, are giving all RyC awardees the opportunity to compete in their open recruitment process. Still others, like the University of Valencia, have come up with creative ways of meeting their apparent obligations, like getting them hired by a private foundation affiliated to the university. But some universities are refusing to incorporate their RyC researchers, despite the fact that a recent government initiative--the I3 programme--makes this much easier by offering to pay the first 3 years of any new permanent contract given to any researcher who has received positive evaluations.

On the wrong side of the (tenure) tracks

"The main problem we face is that we have been on the wrong track from the beginning," says Alberto Fernandez-Soto, a third-year Ramón y Cajal researcher at the University of Valencia. Traditionally, Fernandez-Soto explains, Ph.D. students in Spanish universities have been given nonpermanent academic positions that don’t require any specific qualification but allow teaching, like profesor asociado or professor ayudante. Based on this teaching experience, universities will create civil service positions for them when they finish their Ph.D.s.

Those universities continue to create positions for them as they gain the necessary credentials and accreditations for higher jobs. But universities have been reluctant to create positions for RyC researchers, who mainly have a research role and not a teaching role like the home-grown candidates, argues Fernandez-Soto. This is because local-government funding for Spanish universities depends on the number of students the institution has, so they "only create positions based on 'student pressure,' never on research success. We are in clear disadvantage because we cannot even compete--there are no positions created [for us], period."

Compounding the problem is enduring "cronyism" in Spanish universities, says Fernandez-Soto. As outsiders, RyC fellows have a harder time fitting within the Spanish academic system, unless their university decides to make a welcoming gesture. A recent study from the CSIC supports this assertion, estimating that between 1997 and 2001 more than 96% of the newly appointed professors were already working in their host institution when they were hired. In 70% of the cases, there were no other applicants for the job.

RyC researchers who went to work in public research centres like the CSIC have been luckier in securing a position; the majority of the 2001 cohort taken on by the CSIC has already been integrated. "There are no 'non-permanent' positions, and the level of compet[ition] for the permanent ones is just too high, no matter how hard a panel could try to fit a friend," writes Fernandez-Soto. "So usually the entry point for a permanent position now is to have a RyC contract there."

In response to the outrage of the RyC researchers following Quintanilla’s comments, the Ministry of Education and Science has repeated the view that "The Ramón y Cajal programme is a contract for 5 years to enable a postdoctoral scientist with regular performance evaluations to incorporate an R&D centre [universities and public research organisations] in our country." And even though the Ministry acknowledged the initial aim of the programme--reiterating "its support to the Ramón y Cajal programme … not only as a means for Spanish scientists to come back from abroad, but also to attract good scientists, regardless of their nationality"-- it believes it has done its part. "To create the conditions for these scientists to find a definitive place in our science and technology system the Ministry launched last year the I3 programme." The Ministry leaves it up to the research institutions whether to accept the financial incentive--and integrate their Ramón y Cajal researchers--or not. Although the Ministry insists that the I3 programme provides funds for all the RyC fellows finishing in the next 3 years to be contracted, "the Government can not oblige universities and public research organisations to contract anyone."

How successful the integration of the RyC researchers will be remains to be seen. But there is more at stake than the future of a few hundred young researchers. The Spanish university system needs to prove that it can shake off insularism and be an attractive place for young, mobile researchers. Some Ramón y Cajal researchers remain hopeful that things will work out. "In the end the majority will get a job," says ANIRC vice-president Mark van Raaij. "But it will be organised in the Spanish way, at the last minute."

Elisabeth Pain is contributing editor for South and West Europe.

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See also in Science Online: Spanish Scientists: Home Alone (23 June 2006, subscription required)

Elisabeth Pain is contributing editor for Europe.