PEDRO DUQUE DUQUE

Spain 2021 | TELECOMS & IT | VIP INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Pedro Duque Duque, Minister of Science & Innovation, about unprecedented investment in R&D&I, vaccine development, and priorities for 2021.

The national budget for 2021 foresees an increase of 59.4% for the Ministry of Science and Innovation compared to 2020, a total of EUR3.2 billion, the largest direct investment in R&D&I in absolute terms in Spain's history. In general, what is the distribution strategy for this budget?

Spain has decided to heavily invest in R&D&I in order to use the additional funds, which are about EUR1.1 billion, to support the reforms that the science and innovation sector needs. We will reform the way in which we hire researchers and use part of the funds to finance this process. It is important to note that we want to stabilize the hiring of researchers, and a large portion of the resources allocated to the recovery plan will be used for research as well as innovations. These funds will be used to foster business R&D processes so that the returns from those new programs can be attained in the short term. We will also consolidate the programs for innovation that we introduced during the last few years. We have an ongoing program to invest in new technology-based companies, but this program has to be further consolidated. We will also upgrade the system so that we have the funds to not only invest in businesses that have demonstrated their ability to transfer their developments into new products, but also invest in the first stages of research processes. That is one of the gaps that we have to cover. We will consolidate the CERVERA program of cooperation within technology centers, and this will encourage R&D within SMEs. In general terms, we are heavily involved in the process of creating new ways of working to transition the innovation process into the business sector.

The scientific community, which was badly hit by budget cuts in the last decade, has viewed this national budget with optimism. What is your strategy to ensure the scientific community has better working conditions?

The first step is the reform. It is important to create a new mechanism to hire scientists and researchers, and these mechanisms target the early absorption of talented scientists and researchers in the job market. We want this mechanism to be applied to the market as soon as possible, and we want the resources designated for R&D to increase subsequently until they reach average European levels. This should ideally lead to a system that continues to scale up such that it can continually absorb the talent in the market. That is paramount: the early absorption of talent. We want to increase the volume of hiring and the contracting model to hire more researchers.

The European average is to allocate 2.1% of the GDP to R&D, while in Spain that ratio is 1.25%. What else can be done to reach the European level?

The most important aspect is the Pact for Science and Innovation, a short document that has been signed by nearly 50 organizations, including worker unions, businesses, and scientific organizations, among others. This pact includes a commitment to meet the goals that the EU has set out for every member country, including investing 3% of the global GDP by 2030. Furthermore, of that amount, 1.25% has to be public investment. If we reach that target, we should reach the European average by 2024 or 2025.

The ministry has subsidized more than 10 projects to develop vaccines in Spain. Why is it important to continue investing in vaccines in Spain when international vaccines have already been distributed?

It is extremely important. First, part of the mission of these companies is to produce the international vaccines themselves. Of the many companies that we have supported through government grants to transition from veterinary vaccines to human vaccines, two of those companies will start to produce vaccines soon. Meanwhile, there are also companies manufacturing the bottling process, such as Laboratorios Rovi. We will continue to support researchers because the knowledge generated is of added value, and we should continue working until the end, if possible. Second, the current vaccines are safe and effective, but we have not had sufficient time to determine if these vaccines are complementary to other technologies based on, for example, the temperature needed to preserve them. The second wave of vaccines could include certain developments carried out in Spain that could be useful as well. We do not know what the geopolitical situation will be in the short term, so it is important to be prepared for anything. It is important to have our own projects, because that is the plan B, and it is important to always have plan B.

Congress has created a panel of experts in science and technology to advise on legislative decision-making. What are your views on this initiative?

I am extremely pleased to see that this process that we started almost two years ago is gradually gaining traction. It has taken time because the previous President of congress who took some initial steps was later replaced. Then, the pandemic occurred, and there were many things to address. It was also necessary to evaluate the best legal mechanisms to carry out these changes. The panel includes a number of excellent professionals with a pool of scientific knowledge, and it will be able to present these legal changes to lawmakers without any agendas.

In 2019, you said Spain would increase its contribution to the European Space Agency (ESA). How has your career as an astronaut influenced that decision?

I have been in the ESA for 30 years, so I know how profitable it is to invest in those technologies. Europe is still far behind the US in that area in terms of investment, so we still have a long way to go. The other European countries will increase their budgets in that area, so Spain has to continue to get closer to the European average. In 2021, the Spanish industry has obtained extremely significant contracts, which it could only obtain if the ministry increased its contributions in this area.

What is your main priority for 2021?

We want to focus on a plan to use the funds appropriately by ensuring that they are able to help the economy recover as quickly as possible and by allocating resources to the required areas. We have some projects that are not general, but specific. One of them is in personalized medicine, which will be launched in 2021. We have a plan for aerospace and strong investments in R&D for sustainability. In addition, by mid-2021 we will have received clear commitments from politicians in the main political parties to continue increasing investment in R&D.