I have been in & out of Spain, running companies, getting married, having children, closing companies and more for almost two decades, so the unrelentingly grim news from the Spanish economy is particularly unwelcome.
While I was living in Spain I argued vociferously for more investment in translational research, but found myself working with two communities with no incentive to change.
Soon after arriving in Spain I received a call from a local academic who informed me “In this country, research is done in Universities, not companies so please go back to wherever you came from!” This, more than any other event, indicated the cultural problems encountered when translating from a system in which academic research is pursued for its own sake to one where it supports the needs of the wider economy.
Translational research was also a low priority for regional and local governments. Construction was booming, the EU was funding massive infrastructure projects and tax revenues were up. While there was funding for the education system, there wasn’t too much interest in starting new technology businesses.
A decade and a half later the landscape looks very different. Much of the old guard, the Franco era administrators who had their secretaries print out emails so as to avoid having anything to do with computers are long gone. For decades Spanish mothers advised their offspring to get a safe job in a bank or the government, stifling entrepreneurship, but those jobs are no longer secure. Universities are building technology parks and encouraging spin outs.
The current economic situation is giving a boost to entrepreneurs – with virtually no jobs for Spanish graduates more and more are creating their own jobs. In a tough economic climate many will fail, but plenty will survive.
For Spain to recover, there is no need for more grandiose projects. There are roads and houses enough for twice the population. What the country should be doing is encouraging the current crop of entrepreneurs, making it easier to hire and fire, set up businesses and change attitudes to failure.
While things may be tough at the moment it will take a change in political mindsets to move away from ‘safe’ industries such as construction and tourism to riskier high tech ones. Spain has the talent and the enthusiasm to reinvent its economy, let’s hope the dead hand of political conservatisms doesn’t waste this opportunity.