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Catalonia, a hub of global biomedical research

Catalonia has established a reputation as a global centre of scientific excellence, pioneering research and innovative ideas. This corner of Europe, with just 0.1% of the world’s population, accounts for nearly 1% of global scientific production. The Catalan Research system, formed of 12 internationally esteemed universities, over 60 research centres, 15 world class hospitals, and almost 9,000 innovative companies, attests to the Catalonia's ambitions in science. This territory is also a magnet of international funding: with 1.5% of Europe’s population, it receives 2.2% of European competitive funds and 3.5% of European Research Council (ERC) grants. There can be no doubt that Catalonia is now a benchmark in Southern Europe, producing frontier research and punching considerably above its weight in terms of scientific contribution.  It is attracting worldwide talent and projects, and many consider it to be fast becoming the Palo Alto of biomedical research.

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25 July 2014 12:32 PM

by

Bryony Clarke

Barcelona (CNA).- Catalonia has established a reputation as a global centre of scientific excellence, pioneering research and innovative ideas. This corner of Europe, with just 0.1% of the world’s population, accounts for nearly 1% of global scientific production. The Catalan Research system, formed of 12 internationally esteemed universities, over 60 research centres, 15 world class hospitals, and almost 9,000 innovative companies, attests to the Catalonia's ambitions in science. This territory is also a magnet of international funding: with 1.5% of Europe’s population, it receives 2.2% of European competitive funds and 3.5% of European Research Council (ERC) grants. There can be no doubt that Catalonia is now a benchmark in Southern Europe, producing frontier research and punching considerably above its weight in terms of scientific contribution.  It is attracting worldwide talent and projects, and many consider it to be fast becoming the Palo Alto of biomedical research. However, with access to funding being the main threat to the sector’s growth, and the difficulty of transferring world-class research into concrete economic benefits, the sustainability of the current research and development system is far from certain.


The key to success

“Catalonia has created a system that is able to attract the best people and an environment where they have the best opportunities and incentives. This has produced an ecosystem where scientists can thrive.” This is the view of Joan J. Guinovart, the Director of Barcelona's Institute for Research in Biomedicine (IRB Barcelona).

At the start of the 21st century, there was a widely felt need to revitalise Catalonia’s science base and create a new research system in Catalonia. In 2000, Andreu Mas-Colell, the Catalan Minister for Universities, Research and Information Society at the time and previously a prestigious Professor of Economics at Berkeley and Harvard, implemented a framework for research programmes called ICREA (Institució Catalana de Recerca i Estudis Avançats) to stimulate research in the Autonomous Community. The programme overhauled Catalonia’s research and development system, and provided it with continuous funding. In barely more than a decade, 47 new research institutes and two science parks in the heart of Barcelona have been founded, while several educational establishments have been consolidated as world class universities, including the Universitat de Barcelona and the Universitat Autónoma de Barcelona, which both rank in the global top 200. .

Over this period, scientific production in Catalonia has also burgeoned, with the number of highly cited papers increasing by up to 80%.  A further indicator of Catalonia’s success is the amount of international funding it has attracted. A disproportionally high number of European Research Council grants are awarded to researchers based in Barcelona or nearby: and over 50% of all Spain-based recipients of these grants work in Catalonia.

Self-described as “an institution without walls,” ICREA’s primary aim is to recruit top scientists  capable of leading new research groups, strengthening existing groups, and establishing new lines of research. Joan J. Guinovart explained that the ICREA programme “was a system designed to attract talent to Catalonia without the usual red tape and endogamy.”  Barcelona's Institute for Research in Biomedicine (IRB Barcelona) currently employees 13 research professors through the ICREA programme.

Hiring the best researchers

“The ICREA programme has been very important as it has provided complementary funds and allowed our centres to be competitive, hiring the best researchers,” explains Adela Farré of the Biocat organization, a public body which coordinates and promotes the life sciences sector in Catalonia. The ICREA programme implemented by Andreu Mas-Colell has allowed a great amount of new talent to flock into Catalonia: in its thirteen years of activity, it has recruited over 300 internationally outstanding scientists in different areas of research.

It is the unique model and structure of the Catalan research system, which involves a substantial amount of government funding but also a great deal of public-private collaboration and the participation of universities, which has allowed Catalonia to excel. The ICREA programme has also endowed directors of research centres in Catalonia with a great deal of autonomy to select the best researchers and chose their own direction of research. Catalonia has also been ahead of the game in tackling the ‘inbreeding culture’ which has beleaguered many Spanish academic institutions, in which universities favour local and internal candidates, leaving little room for new faces and outside competition.  

Farré further explained: “For example in the Spanish research centres, you cannot hire foreign people because the centres are funcionarios: part of the Civil Service. In Catalan centres you can hire the best researchers in the world for the subject you are working on – this has produced the very fast development of very good research system in Catalonia in only a few years.”

Building a hub of biomedical research

Catalonia is especially blossoming in the sector of biomedical and biotechnical research, and is described by Adela Farré as “one of the great international bioscience hubs.” Greater Barcelona, in particular, is one of Europe´s ‘Bioclusters’; with a network of collaborating research institutes, universities and hospitals devoted to this field of research. Nearly 30% of all researchers recruited by the ICREA programme have been working in the area of life and medical sciences, more than in any other field.

There are currently 512 companies in Catalonia working directly in the field of bioscience, almost double the number that existed before 2000. Of these, 194 are biotechnology companies, 40 are pharmaceutical corporations, 54 are medical technology firms, and the rest are investors, suppliers or service companies. These organisations have a joint turnover of over €11,000 million, and, as of 2013, together employ over 33,000 people.

Catalan biomedical research centres make 3 euros per each euro of public money received

This sector is significantly profitable, and biomedical research contributes 5.8% of Catalan GDP.  According to a report into Health Science Research presented by the Results Centre of the Catalan Comprehensive Public Health Care System in June 2014, biomedical research centres in Catalonia make three euros for every one euro invested in them by the Government. Using data collected from 19 research institutes and centres across Catalonia in 2012, the report also found that biomedical research has increased its production by 30% in the last 3 years. While most societies might consider health spending a drain on public resources, in Catalonia, investment in health research is highly remunerative.

Historically, Catalonia has been leading certain industrial sectors associated with the health system, such as the pharmaceutical industry or the Tech Med industry. It has a very strong healthcare system and boasts a number of large, internationally esteemed research hospitals such as the Hospital Universitari Vall d'Hebron and the Hospital Clínic in Barcelona. In total, there are 17 university hospitals in Catalonia. 

Farré explained: “Our success with biomedical research is the result of the economic and industrial situation - the need of this country to build the health industry - and the government commitment to research made in 2000. It is also linked with Catalonia’s history of leading the most innovative sectors” in Spain and southern Europe.

Catalonia’s success in the field of biomedical research is also intimately linked to the very structure of its research model. A significant number of research centres and companies in the sector are located in science and technology parks, of which there are more than 20 across Catalonia.  Many others are based in hospitals, such as the world class HIV research facility, Irsi Caixa, based in the Germans Trias i Pujol University Hospital in Badalona (Greater Barcelona). The strength of the model lies in its interconnectivity. As Dr Bonaventura Clotet, physician, researcher and the Director of the Irsi Caixa explained: “I think talent is everywhere, but there are some specific landscapes that better facilitate the crystallisation of ideas. In Catalonia, we are very keen to collaborate together and join efforts. There is more synergy between different organisations, hospitals, clinics, research centres.”

“No security in science”

Through times of economic austerity, it would appear that the Catalan Government has made strenuous efforts to maintain its contribution to the financing of Catalonia’s biomedical research landscape. Andreu Mas-Colell, who is currently the Catalan Ministry for the Economy and Knowledge (in charge of the university and research system), is very aware of the importance of maintaining a system that permits the development of top research. As Sònia Armengou, Head of the IRB's Press Office emphasised: “there is a non-written agreement that this system should be maintained. It has been shown that it works, and is lucrative and rewarding.  They have maintained our budget through all these years, through the crisis. We haven’t had any cuts to our funding from the Generalitat [Catalan Government].”   

Nonetheless, there is not a continuous flow of money and resources into Catalonia’s research and development system, and Catalonia’s research institutes have not been immune to the financial crisis. The system is not entirely sustained by Catalan Government funding, relying as well on private sources, international grant-awarding bodies and the Spanish Government. While the Catalan Executive may have maintained its level of investment in certain research institutes, such as the IRB and Irsi Caixa, the Spanish Government has reduced its funding into scientific research by a staggering 40% since the start of the crisis.

Resisting the budget cuts

Smaller research organisations have been especially hard hit, and from January 2012 to June 2013, the number of companies forced to close in the BioRegion, the life sciences cluster in Catalonia, surpassed those created for the first since the biocluster was created. According to the BioCat 2013 annual report, access to funding continues to be the main challenge to the sector’s growth.  

Junior researchers have also felt the brunt of these cuts. In the Catalan research system, there is currently little funding for young researchers. The ICREA programme is designed to attract scientists who are already very established and advanced in their respective fields: it is not a programme aimed at junior researchers at the very beginning of their career. With so few PhD grants being awarded, and most of those grants providing inadequate funding, a lot of science graduates are flocking out of Spain. Dr Julia García-Prado, who leads a research group at Irsi Caixa, explained the difficulty for young PhD research students: “We are facing a lot of trouble to incorporate people in the team like PhD students, because the public funding for PhD students has been cut. The competition now is so tough, you need incredible marks. I would never have been able to do my PhD if I were applying for it today!”

Young researchers are particularly hard hit

Dr. Beatriz Mothe, a physician and fellow investigator at Irsi Caixa, who is currently running a clinical trial, agrees that access to funding is a real issue. “It is hindering the progress of research. It takes two years to get all the funding just to start a clinical trial like this. When you have these funding problems, you’re spending a lot of your time on this – I’m spending 50% of my day writing grant proposals to attract money. This is time I could be using to do research.”

While research institutions such as the IRB may enjoy a certain degree of stability, from the perspective of individual researchers, the years ahead are full of uncertainty. As Dr Prado described: “here, there is no security in science. You always need to think about what’s going to happen in the next three years, and worrying about this consumes a lot of energy - energy that I think you should be able to devote to your research rather than grant applications.”

The Director of Irsi Caixa, Dr Clotet, believes that part of the problem is Catalonia’s lack of autonomy over its own economy. “Catalonian independence would greatly help our research and development in that we would have the ability to manage our own research system. What is important to understand is our economy should be in our hands. What we generate should be managed by ourselves.” Referring to Catalonia’s fiscal deficit, he argued, “the money that we generate is not coming back to us, we are not getting what we need for our research system to move forward.”

The challenge of knowledge transfer

One of the further challenges the bioscience sector grapples with is ensuring the ground-breaking research it produces translates into concrete benefits for society as a whole.

In June 2014, the Catalan Minister for Health, Boi Ruiz, acknowledged that despite increased production in the biomedical field and the strengthened financial resources, the transfer of scientific knowledge to society remains a persistent challenge. This is demonstrated by the poor number of spin-offs and start-ups created in recent years. In total, eight such organisations were created in 2012 and 29 patents were registered, an improving but nonetheless disappointing figure given the volume of research produced. Other global science hubs have been able to better capitalize on the strength of their research. Israel, for example, which is comparable to Catalonia both in terms of size and the volume of its scientific production, generates 20 times more start-ups from research centres. The unemployment rate in Israel was 6.5% in 2013, compared to 22.8% in Catalonia.

"Making a patent not just making a paper"

Adela Farré ascribed the problem in part to the mentality of the research centres. “We are conscious that we need to change the mind-set of our researchers to be more market-oriented and more society-orientated. We need to train researchers to see the advantages of making a patent not just making a paper”. The current system of evaluation largely revolves around how many citations a paper gets rather than the success of its practical application in society. The research being pursued in the laboratories is not invariably consonant with the needs of industry, and there continues to be a certain disconnection between academic institutions and wider society. Perhaps the greatest pending task for the sector of biomedicine is the transfer of research, from highly cited papers to new jobs, from scientific excellence to innovation. In short, there is the need to reduce the time between when a scientific discovery is made and when its benefits are felt by wider society.

Dr Guinovart, the Director of IRB, argued that to tackle the problem of knowledge transfer it is firstly necessary to have more people working in the interface between science and business “because scientists are not business people, and don’t necessarily understand the probabilities and opportunities a certain discovery can make.” But more importantly, companies and investors need to be ready to take advantage of the discoveries that are made. “We would benefit a lot from a change of mind-set in the business people of Catalonia. They should be able to move from more traditional types of business into research. They’re so happy buying and selling apartments, they have to realise that that’s over.” Dr Guinovart strongly believes that companies and businesses must be made aware of the high quality of research in Catalonia and the opportunities that lie there.

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  • A lab of Barcelona's IRB (by IRB)

  • A lab of Irsi Caixa (by Irsi Caixa)

  • A researcher working in one of the IRB's labs (IRB)

  • A lab of Barcelona's IRB (by IRB)
  • A lab of Irsi Caixa (by Irsi Caixa)
  • A researcher working in one of the IRB's labs (IRB)