Josep M. Martorell
Former Director General of Research for the Government of Catalonia (2011-2015)

Towards a position of leadership in a competitive world

Europe is slowly pulling out of the greatest recession we’ve seen in decades and we now find that we need to establish long-term strategies to boost competitiveness. The EU is committed to providing greater financial resources and to encouraging private participation in the innovation process, encouraging flexibility and openness to new ideas. These are the concepts that are being strengthened in the program underway, Horizon 2020, and they are also the main guidelines of the smart specialization strategy for European regions (RIS3), both covering the 2014-2020 period.

Taking this situation into account, I invite you to look back at what has been done in recent years in Catalonia, in terms of the university and research system, broadening the scope to look at the past thirty or forty years (a period of time that has been key in building the top-notch system Catalonia has today in the knowledge arena). Then, I will take a closer look at the past two years, which is the time that has elapsed since our latest reflection in this same space.

With the perspective we’ve gained over these more than thirty years, we can divide this period into three eras.

The first runs from the decade of the 1980s to just before the year 2000, marked by the consolidation of democracy in Spain and progress towards our own self-government. In those years, Catalonia focused its efforts on aspects of higher education. The goal was to extend and guarantee universal access throughout the country, growing the public university offering to fit a global population that was also growing due to the baby boom.

After that, towards the year 2000, and with a quality higher-education system accessible to all, the challenge was to focus it globally on research. The system, despite having a certain level of quality, wasn’t competitive internationally as a whole. Therefore, a number of actions were put in motion that have helped us reach our current level of excellence over the past fifteen years: tools that have allowed us to overcome some of the strict limitations in terms of governance established –and still in place today- by the Spanish system (the Law on Universities in Catalonia and the Catalan University Quality Assurance Agency), and some of our own instruments that allowed us to influence how institutions are governed (CERCA and ICREA), making them flexible and focused on internationalization and excellence, and to attract and retain foreign talent.

Towards the year 2000, a number of actions were put in motion that have helped us reach our current level of excellence over the past fifteen years

Taking advantage of the fact that the latest version of this report was published in 2013, I will choose that year as the end of the second era. By this time we had established a good university system: the UB (University of Barcelona) is among the top 200 and 300 universities in the world on what is known as the Shanghai ranking (Academic Ranking of World Universities) and this was also the year that both the UAB (Autonomous University of Barcelona) and the UPF (Pompeu Fabra University) moved into the higher part of that ranking, which is one of the most renowned among universities worldwide.

In 2013, Catalonia also overtook Sweden in per capita grants received from the European Research Council (ERC), moving into second place in the EU.

We also reached that same year with a good system of research centers, found at the top of global rankings (Scimago 2013) in chemistry, physics and biomedicine. ICREA was also found at the top of these rankings, confirming the decisions made over the years, kept in place by administration after administration and consolidated with the signing of the National Pact for Research and Innovation in 2008.

Over these years, and comparing competitive grants obtained through national (Plan Nacional, now Plan Estatal) and European (7th Framework Program and now Horizon 2020) programs, the system has proven to be more effective the more competitive the call or ranking, with most indicators between 50% and 100% above the expected level for population size in Europe and in Spain. Again, the decisions made in terms of openness, flexibility, accountability and commitment to excellence are reflected in these indicators, which put groups and bodies governed by the Catalan R&D&i model in extremely noteworthy positions, even within our own system.

And the third era runs from 2013 to the present. Now there are 3 Catalan universities among the top 200 on the 2015 THE ranking (Times Higher Education) and 3 universities on the 2014 QS Top 50 Under 50. In fact, Barcelona is the second city in the world with the most universities on that ranking (the first is Hong Kong, a city with a population equal to all of Catalonia). Catalonia has the most universities among the top 50 under 50 years old, per million inhabitants, in Europe, and nearly seven times more than the rest of Spain. Likewise, we’ve pulled away from the country that follows us on the ranking of ERC grants by population (thanks mostly to the success of the biomedical sector, which receives 35% of all these grants). Therefore, it is clear that we’ve done a good job, thanks to the hard work of thousands of people working in the system and despite the difficulties we are all aware of.

Previously, the challenge had been to put in motion actions that would have an impact on the R&D model and on higher education. Now, the challenge is to consolidate the quality of the system, no easy feat given the difficulties in the environment, and to transform this knowledge into social benefit and economic growth. Now, the challenge is to put research at the heart of our economic model and that requires policies of state.

Now, the challenge is to consolidate the quality of the system and to transform this knowledge into social benefit and economic growth, and that requires policies of state

The fact that, at this point in the story, I am emphasizing that the Government is prioritizing knowledge transfer in this third era in no way means that the institutions haven’t already been working in this line. And the biomedicine and biotechnology sector is a very clear example of this. However, looking at figures that include all innovative sectors, we know that the current global volume of collaboration between academia and companies –which can be considered knowledge transfer– for all of the stakeholders together is approximately €200 millions per year. And by type of stakeholder, we see that universities play a key role, with a growing contribution in recent years from the CERCA centers, especially those conducting research in the health sciences.

Given the capacities of the stakeholders in the BioRegion, the strategy promoted by the Government focuses on strengthening three main lines: training (talent), facilitating (legal and fiscal matters) and funding (incentivizing investment). Although these aren’t large-scale structural measures (they structure instruments in line with our scope of action in terms of competence and, at times, somewhat further despite the obstacles), they are working in the right direction. I’ll give three examples of government actions in each of these lines.

In terms of training, industrial PhD programs, inspired by successful programs in countries like Sweden and Denmark, address the challenge of influencing talent-training programs to encourage technology and knowledge transfer to the industrial fabric. In its three editions, the program has led to the kick off of more than 150 projects, with 120 participating companies ranging from start-ups to large corporations, 26 of which are from the life sciences. Last July, the first industrial PhD candidate in the country presented his dissertation.

Regarding facilitating, we must look to the measures introduced in the Government Budget Accompanying Law for 2014: noteworthy in the legislative arena is the Catalan income-tax deduction, raised from 30% to 50% for angel investors in companies created out of universities and research centers.

Finally, the Knowledge Industry Program is the main action in the area of funding. In terms of encouraging science-based companies through knowledge and incentivizing investment, the program will leverage up to €30 millions over 5 years for different stages of development, from idea to market (seed, product and market). It must be noted that, in the first edition of the program, 50% of all projects granted funds in the seed stage and 60% in the product stage were from the healthcare and life sciences.

The strategy promoted by the Government focuses on strengthening three main lines: training (talent), facilitating (legal and fiscal matters) and funding (incentivizing investment).

All of the actions that have been put in motion in this era, which are key in consolidating the drive from knowledge to market, aim to align our policies for the coming decade with those in Europe. For now, through the RIS3 instruments, but also following the commitment to a model that encourages competitive resources (we only have to look at the impact of our policies on the funds attracted under the Framework Program), and putting in place measures that allow us to improve indicators used in Europe to assess regional innovation levels. And to commit to the node of the IET InnoLife consortium (current EIT Health) and all of the large-scale European projects in which our institutions participate as significant stakeholders in the respective consortia, as well as institutions that, on a systemic level, promote and make it more agile and capable. This is the case of Biocat, a clear catalyst for the success of the Catalan bio sector.

Yet, as I said before, there are still challenges to be tackled. And to take the next step, we need a significant change: we must have the ability to set fiscal policy (especially in terms of business taxes), the ability to regulate credit operations, regulate venture capital mechanisms and angel investors, the capacity to intervene in employment regulations and the governance system, to participate in international bodies, and more. These points require political action that is only possible if Catalonia becomes a state.

I would like to finish up this reflection, and the vision with the perspective of what has gone before and what has happened since the previous Biocat Report was published, by recognizing that it is true that without the recession the situation would have been better. But the crisis has also made us more efficient as a system. The fact that we have maintained indicators and been able to promote measures designed to grow the system is proof that we have become stronger, which puts us in an advantageous position to make the most of opportunities that will come in the future from the bourgeoning economic recovery, and from the political process our country is immersed in.