Magazine article Times Higher Education

Barcelona Rises above Spain's Education Malaise

Magazine article Times Higher Education

Barcelona Rises above Spain's Education Malaise

Article excerpt

Research park allows academic ecosystem to thrive, reports Jack Grove from the Catalan capital

Few laboratories can surely match the views from Barcelona Biomedical Research Park on the city's busy beachfront.

From the sun-dappled balconies of the modernist [euro]120 million (£93 million) institute, scientists can watch boats sail out from the Olympic Port, swimmers take a dip in the Mediterranean and tourists zip along the seafront promenade on motorised scooters.

"It's a wonder we get any work done at all," joked Angel Lozanos, vice-president (research) at Pompeu Fabra University, on the view from the institute, which was established by the university alongside Barcelona City Council and the Catalan government in 2006.

But plenty of work has been done at the institute, which celebrates its 10th anniversary later this month. About 1,500 staff from seven independent research organisations are based at the institute, which has become one of the largest biomedical research centres in southern Europe, producing 1,130 scientific publications last year, double its 2006 total.

With more than 100 research groups working in close proximity to each other - investigating everything from cancer and neuroscience to evolutionary biology and epidemiology - there are some similarities to London's Francis Crick Institute, which aims to foster the same ethos of cross-disciplinary working found in the Barcelona lab.

With scientists from about 60 countries at the institute - almost a third of researchers are international - it is one of the few places in Spanish academia with a truly international workforce, said Professor Lozanos.

"We can't compete on wages with places like Switzerland, where they seem to have almost infinite money, but people want to come here, partly due to the quality of life on offer," he explained.

"People are willing to take a 20 per cent salary cut to come here because it's Barcelona."

That success in recruiting internationally is also due to the institute's ability to sidestep some of the more restrictive state bureaucracy that critics say is hampering Spain's ability to attract top talent.

Under Spanish law, foreign academics must have their PhD ratified by the education ministry - a process often lasting years, which stops many top international scholars from moving to Spain.

As a research organisation created outside the rules binding most universities, Barcelona's research park can employ international staff more freely, and also pay them higher salaries than normal academics whose Civil Service status makes them subject to national pay structures.

"When I did my PhD here in Barcelona, there was one foreign PhD in my cohort, but now the problem is recruiting enough Spanish candidates," said Cristina Pujades, associate professor at Pompeu Fabra's department of experimental and health sciences, and research delegate at the institute. …

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