In last week’s editorial I wrote about the launch of UK Research & Innovation, the U.K.’s newest funding body. This mega-agency consolidates all of the country’s public funding bodies under one umbrella that will be supported by a £6 billion ($8 billion) starting budget. For this week’s editorial, I’d like to first fly south from the U.K. to Spain and discuss what is happening there in science, and then travel east to China.
Spain has been through a lot in the past two to three years. From Catalonia’s call for independence, to repeat general elections, to corruption scandals, the political, social, and economic turmoil culminated in a no-confidence motion in parliament for Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy on June 1. The vote effectively ended his presidency, and his replacement, Pedro Sánchez, has already put a government together. The good news? Science gets its very own ministry with its very own minister, a “luxury” that Spain has not had for years. The new ministry will look after science, innovation, and universities, and its leader is one of the best-known faces in popular science in Spain: none other than the country’s first astronaut, Pedro Duque.
Duque is an aeronautical engineer who took his first trip to space in 1998. As part of the team representing the European Space Agency, he served as a mission specialist aboard NASA’s space shuttle Discovery on a nine-day mission. He still retains full flight status, but Duque last went to space about 15 years ago when he traveled in a Russian Soyuz TMA spacecraft to the International Space Station, where he spent 10 days.
As challenging as space travel is, Duque is likely to face his toughest challenges yet as science minister. The scientific culture in Spain is one of years of deep cuts in public spending due to the country’s financial crisis. Problems are many and varied, including the lack of a culture of investment in R&D by the private sector, insufficient mobility of people and knowledge between institutions, a poor culture of evaluation and accountability, fragmented governance, and lack of effective science policies.
Travel about 9,000 km east, and in China, President Xi Jinping is in less of an uphill struggle. In fact, the situation is quite the opposite: The country has been experiencing for years the benefits of increased investment, and science is booming in China.
During an address delivered at the opening of a meeting of the academicians of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and of the Chinese Academy of Engineering in Beijing on May 28, Xi called for China to become a world leader in science and technology. Among many themes, his speech stressed the key role of talent in innovation-driven development and the need for China to make use of global resources and be an integral part of a global network of innovation. China’s commitment to innovation is reflected by its shift from a culture concerned with quantity to one focused on quality.
Xi also called for more international exchanges and cooperation and new partnerships to deal with global challenges that are commonly accepted as crucial to the future development of the world’s population, including food and energy security, health, and climate change.
Finally, Xi stressed the role of youth in innovation and the future of his nation, adding, “Numerous children in China dream of becoming a scientist. We should make science an appealing career for the young.”
China is definitely investing—current R&D spending is 2.1% of GDP—to make this dream a reality. I hope the recent changes in Spain also have a similar effect. Space exploration captivates people’s imagination, so who better to inspire the next generation of scientists than an astronaut turned policy-maker?
Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.