Facing budget cuts, Spain launches funding foundation

MADRID — In Spain, the government’s overall spending on research is set to wither by about 8% this year, according to an analysis released last fall by the Confederation of Spanish Scientific Societies. Given the climate of budget cuts, it’s perhaps no surprise that scientists there are turning to the public for funding.
Historically, Spain has fallen behind other nations in Europe when it comes to private giving for research. A Eurobarometer report published last summer said that 28% of people in the country reported having donated money to fundraising campaigns for medical research, below the EU average of 39%. By comparison, 78% and 70% of individuals surveyed in the Netherlands and UK said they had given money for these campaigns.

At a World Cancer Day event in Barcelona last month, Tony Kouzarides of the University of Cambridge, UK announced a new foundation called Vencer el Cáncer (Vanquish Cancer), modeled after Cancer Research UK, a private not-for-profit nonprofit that distributed slightly more than £300 million ($500 million) last year for research. “Even if we get, say, maybe just one tenth of this, this will allow us to start financing basic research in a very competitive way,” says Vencer el Cáncer patron Miguel Beato, director of the Center for Genomic Regulation in Barcelona.

The duo say they will recruit external referees to evaluate research grant proposals and will also establish a translational arm, similar to that used by Cancer Research UK to help identify and evaluate commercial drug candidates that emerge from the research it funds. This type of translational vehicle is a “key instrument that is missing in Spain,” Beato says.

Kouzarides, who serves on Cancer Research UK’s science strategy advisory group, says that the organization will lend expertise, but no financial support, to its Spanish counterpart. He has worked behind the scenes for the past three years, approaching prominent Spanish researchers to serve as advisers and recruiting over a dozen celebrities to record a television spot and shoot an ad campaign that will roll out across Spain this spring.

“We have a challenge to, first of all, convince the public that research leads to drugs, and to convince them that they can actually contribute to the running of this charity and solve cancer,” says Kouzarides, who is not Spanish himself but is married to a researcher from Spain. Convincing people to dig into their pocketbooks might be tough, though: unemployment in Spain remains at more than 20%.

“Society and business must take part in supporting research,” says Esther Diez Muñiz, spokesperson for the Madrid-based Spanish Association Against Cancer, the country’s biggest cancer foundation. Beato agrees, noting, “we are also convinced that we cannot just lean on government money.”

First published by Nature Medicine: [html] [pdf].