UCL Public Policy


The present and future of research and innovation in Spain, EU and the world

Spain's Science Minister recently spoke at UCL about he role of science and innovation in addressing global social challenges, the value of international collaboration and the effect of Brexit

Carmen Vela

27 April 2018

On 10 May 2018, UCL was delighted to welcome Spain’s Junior Minister for Research, Development and Innovation, Carmen Vela, to give a lecture on the present and future role of science and innovation in Spain, the EU and the world.

The panel held a lively discussion of the role of science and innovation in addressing global social challenges, the value of international collaboration and the role of governments in supporting scientific research and innovation.


  • Prof Robin Grimes, Chief Scientific Advisor to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Chair
  • Carmen Vela, Spain’s Junior Minister for Research, Development and Innovation
  • Imran Khan, Head of Public Engagement at Wellcome
  • Vivienne Stern, Director, Universities UK International

Spanish research today and in the future

Spain has a relatively young and small scientific research system, particularly in comparison to the UK, Ms Vela commented, and yet, with just 1% of global research and development expenditure, produces 3.2% of global scientific production and almost 7% of all publications in the most prestigious scientific journals.

The country is working hard to increase investment in research and innovation, both through central government, which is currently investing 1.2% of GDP into research with an aim to increase this to 2% by 2020, and through engagement with industry, through the development of a combined science, technology and Innovation strategy developed in 2013.  Based on four underlying pillar, of promoting talent, research excellence, business leadership and addressing social challenges, and funded through a national agency for research, this strategy aims to create more opportunities for Spanish scientists to work in industry and engage in international collaboration.

The value of international collaboration

Spain and the UK both benefit from the strong research links the two nations have developed over the decades, with the UK being Spain’s second largest research partner (Spain is the UK’s 8th largest research partner). However, in the context of recent geopolitical sentiment and change, including Brexit, much of the lectures discussion focused on the role of global international collaboration.

The clear message that emerged was that while access to funding for research, such as to the new EU Framework Programme 9, is vital, the challenges of changing funding structures are not insurmountable.

Indeed, the greatest value from collaboration between Spain, the UK and the rest of Europe, and between research and industry, is in the people. It is through the sharing of ideas, tools and technologies that the greatest global scientific advances are made, and it is vital that this is retained and nurtured through current political changes.  As Mr Khan remarked, the fact that the biggest scientific achievements come about through international collaboration underlines the fact science doesn’t have a nationality.

Engaging citizens

A final theme to emerge from the discussion was the role of the science community in engaging society. Ms Vela remarked on Spain’s role within Europe and the world to work together with other nations to develop tools and technologies to improve the quality of life for people around the world, adding that Spain’s particular focus has been on the areas of food, water and bio-economy. A theme that was picked up in discussion by both Mr Khan and Ms Stern.

Mr Khan remarked that while there is little controversy in talking about the role of science in tackling some of the world’s greatest social challenges (including clean energy, combatting epidemics and addressing poverty), the networks on which international science collaboration is able to flourish are actually quite fragile. He added that if we have learnt anything from Brexit it is that the science community needs to do more to ensure citizens know that scientific research is to their benefit, and that no one nation can solve these challenges alone.

Ms Stern also picked up on the theme that the impact of research is significantly greater when that research is co-produced, adding that if the research community cannot do a better job of explaining why international collaboration is so important we cannot guarantee we can retain the fundamental conditions that have thus far allowed research and innovation to thrive.