Catalonia wants to stimulate talented researchers

Lluís Rovira, who heads Research Centres of Catalonia (CERCA), spoke at FAPESP Week Barcelona about the challenges of developing research in the region

By Heitor Shimizu, in Barcelona | Agência FAPESP – The first day of FAPESP Week Barcelona coincided with the second annual conference of the institutions coordinated by Research Centres of Catalonia (CERCA).

The government of Catalonia set up the CERCA Program in 2010. Today CERCA coordinates 44 previously independent research centres. The network is expected to grow as more centres are added, according to Lluís Rovira, who heads CERCA.

One of the organisation’s key roles, Rovira said, is making the most of Catalonia’s strengths.

“Catalonia is famous for its many talented people and outstanding creativity, as exemplified by the masterpieces of artists like Miró and Gaudí, or the excellence of Barcelona Football Club,” Rovira noted. “But Barça isn’t just excellent in terms of its performance on the field. It’s also one of the best managed football clubs in the world. At CERCA we want to bring together the best in creativity and management to develop Catalonia’s science and technology system.”

Rovira went on to speak about the growth of scientific production in Catalonia in the last 20 years, especially in what is considered high-quality research, as evidenced by rising numbers of journal citations for scientific articles produced by researchers in the region.

“We’ve seen higher growth than in most of Europe during the period. That’s an important achievement,” he said.

Another highlight is the number of grants awarded by the European Research Council. According to Rovira, a comparison with other parts of the European Union shows Catalonia second only to the Netherlands in numbers of ERC grants awarded to its researchers.

“Continuing to grow in the context of frequent change is a tough challenge. Indeed, we constantly face both new challenges and new opportunities,” he said.

According to Rovira, the total budget of the institutions coordinated by CERCA has increased in the last three years despite Spain’s considerable economic difficulties.

CERCA has won support for 63 projects from Horizon 2020, the EU research and innovation programme, which has nearly €80 billion of funding available over seven years (2014-2020). “That’s 2.62% of the total,” Rovira said. “However, only 25 of our 44 institutions are involved and our share in Horizon 2020 is one of the things we have to work hard to improve.”

Rovira then reminded attendees at the event, many of whom represented institutions coordinated by CERCA, that 14 of those institutions have been recognised for “Human Resources Excellence in Research” by the European Commission. The distinction is awarded to institutions that improve their HR policies in accordance with EC procedures, especially the European Charter for Researchers and the Code of Conduct for the Recruitment of Researchers.

Rovira also stressed the importance of growth in the number of researchers for CERCA and the future of science in Catalonia.

“CERCA is striving to increase the participation of women in science,” he said. “We want to correct the existing imbalance. Today there are many more male than female researchers. We want more women, not just as researchers but also as lead investigators responsible for running projects.”

The legal framework is another target at which CERCA is aiming in its efforts to improve the science done in Catalonia. “We have a multilayered system and must deal with Catalan, Spanish and European laws and regulations,” he said. “We have to do better at adapting our activities to these different settings.”

Rovira also stressed the importance of remembering that innovation produced in Catalonia is innovation created in Europe. “Of course it’s crucial to say that a given technology is Catalan, but we must point out that it’s European as well.”

Finally, Rovira highlighted the key role played by private donors who support CERCA’s institutions, including the Bill & Melinda Gates, Cellex, La Caixa, Josep Carreras and Esther Koplowitz Foundations.

Doing research in São Paulo

A key topic in the presentation by Carlos Henrique de Brito Cruz, FAPESP’s Scientific Director, was how the agency supports exchanges, including mechanisms to fund the transfer of scientists from other countries to São Paulo State.

Among the examples he mentioned were the Young Investigators in Emerging Institutions Grants, the Visiting Researcher Grant, the São Paulo School of Advanced Science and the São Paulo Excellence Chair.

Brito Cruz also told his audience that São Paulo State invests 1.6% of GDP in research and development, far outperforming the rest of the country in this respect, and accounts for about 45% of the science produced in Brazil “in terms of the number of scientific articles published by international journals”.

“Universities in São Paulo State award about 45% of each year’s new crop of PhDs,” he said. “Some 6,000 doctoral degrees were earned in the state in 2013.”

Brito Cruz also noted that São Paulo State has a network of 22 research institutions, 19 of which are funded by the state government and three by the federal government.

In his overview of the programmes FAPESP runs, including research grants and fellowships, Brito Cruz highlighted the procedures for analysing the proposals it receives.

“In 2014 we received some 25,000 research proposals, and we’re proud of having analysed each one in 65 days on average. The success rate averaged 45%,” he said.

FAPESP Week Barcelona

FAPESP Week Barcelona continues this Friday (May 29) at the Sant Pau Art Nouveau Site, bringing together researchers from Catalonia and São Paulo State in several knowledge areas, such as nanotechnology, photonics, genomics and health.

The second day of the event, which is co-hosted by FAPESP and CERCA, will open with a presentation by Antonio Castro Neto, who heads the National University of Singapore’s Centre for Advanced 2D Materials and Graphene Research Centre, as well as Mackenzie Presbyterian University’s Centre for Advanced Research in Graphene, Nanomaterials & Nanotechnology (MackGrafe) in São Paulo, Brazil.

Work on nanotechnology and photonics will be presented and discussed next. The speakers will be Niek Hulst from the Institute of Photonic Sciences (ICFO) at Castelldefels; Pablo Ordejón, who heads the Catalan Institute of Nanoscience & Nanotechnology (ICN2); Carlos Frederico de Oliveira Graeff from São Paulo State University (UNESP); and Hugo Luis Fragnito from the University of Campinas (UNICAMP).

The afternoon begins with a session on genomics and human health, with Luis Serrano from Barcelona’s Centre for Genomic Regulation (CRG), Joan Guinovart from the Barcelona Biomedical Research Institute (IRB), Anamaria Aranha Camargo from the Molecular Oncology Centre at São Paulo’s Syrian-Lebanese Hospital, and Maria José Soares Mendes Giannini from UNESP, Araraquara.