IMDEA, science released from the bureaucracy of Universities
RESEARCH – SPECIAL REPORT
16 February 2010
Following the creation of non-for-profit subsidized research centres specialized in strategic areas, Madrid has consolidated its role as an alternative to the ICREA in Catalonia.
In the last eight years, science in Catalonia has become a major reference for the rest of Spain. One of the reasons for this success was the creation of the Institución Catalana de Investigación y Estudios Avanzados (The Catalonian Institute for Research and Advanced Studies, known by its acronym, ICREA) which made possible the repatriation of more than two hundred top scientists working abroad. The Regional Community of Madrid did not replicate this move immediately, but in 2006, a proposal made by the head of the regional government Esperanza Aguirre, finally materialised which in terms of design, commitment to recruit top researchers and offer them unique working conditions was similar to the one made by the Government of Catalonia (Generalitat). However, as Clara Eugenia Núñez, director general of Universities of the Community of Madrid, one of the driving forces behind the project, explained:
“We wanted to overcome the main difficulty experienced by ICREA researchers who had to pursue their research isolated in their universities and were often rejected because they were considered as belonging to a privileged group which prevented them from fully developing their capabilities”, and as she pointed out “We chose to foster the development of the network of centres under the Madrid Institute of Advanced Studies (IMDEA) and incorporate the researchers to this network”. The viewpoints of Clara Núñez reveal a very critical perception of Spanish university “Our starting point was based on a politically incorrect conception regarding staff at universities and therefore it was not competitive. Moreover, the pseudo-democratic approach and the staggering amount of paperwork do not help, either”, she stated categorically.
From this starting point, a number of branches stemming from IMDEA were created in the following years focused on strategic scientific fields of major social interest. Water resources in Alcalá de Henares, Nutrition and Nanoscience in Cantoblanco, Materials in Leganés and the University Complex of Madrid, Software in Montegancedo, Energy in Móstoles, Networks in Leganés and Social Sciences in Tres Cantos.
These centres work closely with the public universities of the region of Madrid but they are not subject to the academic constraints in terms of recruitment of personnel and operation.“Each IMDEA is a non-for-profit private institution in which a scientific committee decides on the lines of research and evaluates the researchers who are to be recruited in order to develop them”, says Begoña Moreno, coordinator of shared services at IMDEA, who also informed us that these scientists“ are paid according to their academic excellence”. This process must be approved by a board of trustees which includes a number of companies belonging to the industry. For example, “in IMDEA Agua (water research), companies such Canal de Isabel II, Aqualia, the water division of Sacyr and others are involved”,explains Eloy García Calvo, the director of this branch. In this Institute we are currently developing 11 projects focused on four lines of research: water and natural environment, disposal of emergent pollutants, technology (nanomaterials, desalinisation, fuel bio-cells…) and socio-economic aspects.
Another specific feature of IMDEA relates to its professional management which means that researchers do not have to worry about paperwork, projects or tenders. Public funds account only for 70% of the resources. “The idea is that over the years we shall be able to increase the level of private funding because this is the only way to avoid exposure to political changes or to economic downturns of the economy as the one we are now experiencing”, stated Moreno. “IMDEA makes it possible to avoid the classical rigid patterns of research”, says García Calvo who is optimistic although he admits that “it is too early to evaluate the results”.
Moreno summarised the first three years of operation of the Institute providing these figures: 183 researchers hired, 35% are foreign researchers from 15 different countries, 66 projects financed, 40 lines of research and 22 articles published in major publications. A few weeks ago the foundation stone of the future IMDEA Nanoscience building in the Autónoma University of Madrid was laid. The other sites operate in leased premises and over the next months no moves are anticipated.“Instead of building new premises and filling them with researchers we consider that it preferable that we devote some years to recruiting the best scientists and then build the final sites”, remarked Núñez.