Nearly every one, on sensing the forthcoming surge of exhalation and mucus, lifts his hand of choice to his mouth and unapologetically deposits the resulting contents there.
I had viral infections twice this past semester.
A culture’s attitude toward health characterizes many of its values. Americans have the tendency to treat every surface as a petri dish requiring constant disinfection. Television commercials advertise every antibacterial cleaner imaginable, hand sanitizer bottles litter schools and workplaces, and we haggle our medical professionals for antibiotics at every sniffle.
We have a problem.
In Spain, the attitude is more relaxed. They use hand sanitizer infrequently; locating it to purchase can even be challenging. Televisions and homes aren’t subjected to constant antibacterial cleansing. And although I cannot confirm or deny antibiotic abuse, Spaniards don’t petri-dish-ify their world.
But cultural values are rarely isolated to single instances. In the United States, our clinical obsessions manifest themselves in elaborate, expensive healthcare systems and generous public funding for scientific research. Although Spanish healthcare impresses from an egalitarian perspective, it’s nothing special otherwise.
And their research is dismal.
The investigative sciences in Spain enjoyed relatively generous public funding under the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party), which maintained majority control of the government until 2011. But when the Partido Popular (Popular Party) overtook it, the party of current Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy immediately crippled the national research budget.
In 2013, public research funding barely cleared 6 billion euros ($8 billion, at the time), or 0.6 percent of the Spanish GDP. This was Spain’s smallest budget in decades. And half was available as loans, which the scientific community has scathingly criticized. In the same year, the United States made $130 billion available, or 0.8 percent of our GDP. Congress had drastically cut research funding in the same period, from 1.0 percent in 2010.
Even worse, it would seem that the Spanish government barely spent half.
For 2016, the budget won’t surpass 6 billion euros (now, under $7 billion).
This semester, I had the privilege of interning in the dental laboratory of Dr. Mariano Sanz of the Complutense University of Madrid. There, I researched the formation of bacterial biofilms that characterize periodontitis, a common disease of the mouth. Working with the beautiful, odorous bichos three days every week, you could say we became friends.
But beyond laboratory techniques, the experience offered a glimpse into Spanish research culture. The investigative sciences in the Complutense University are parched. Public funding is insufficient and competitive, so laboratories must solicit financing from other sources. The Complutense’s own website recommends international groups, companies, and private organizations. A private company funds Dr. Sanz’s laboratory, at least in part.
When we revisit the numbers, this time including private funding, the disparity actually worsens. The United States pulls ahead to 2.8 percent of its GDP for public and private research spending in 2012, according to World Bank data. Spain sits at 1.3 percent. Among the world’s fifteen largest national economies, plus the European Union’s, this places Spain at twelfth for percentage of GDP, in the company of Italy, Brazil, and Russia. The United States is fourth.
The result is predictable. In measuring scientific output, Spain merits mention, but the United States towers as a beacon of leading technologies and breakthroughs, even after accounting for population size. The language of scientific publication has become exclusively English. With few exceptions, nearly all articles of high impact proceed from American or British journals.
This language barrier complicates Spanish research further. At a presentation session to evaluate the progress of the Complutense School of Dentistry’s graduate students, whose presentations were obligatorily in English, I struggled to understand a sizable number. This doesn’t bode well. For the students or for Spain. English has become the scientific standard, for better or worse.
However, Spain’s research has redeeming qualities. Funding often concentrates in grand centers of investigation, like the Centro Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas, for general science research, or the Centro Nacional de Investigaciones Oncológicas, for cancer research. These centers often take on clinical, societally applicable projects. And prominent researchers and clinicians have achieved worldwide recognition, like Dr. María Blasco, for her work on aging and cancer, and Dr. Mariano Sanz, for his contributions in periodontics.
Yet, for a world economic leader, Spain’s research lags behind.
What’s the solution? Well, the national government could direct more funding to the investigative sciences, but an effective government shutdown complicates that. (After Spaniards re-vote for Parliament this Sunday, we can re-evaluate.) Schools and universities could enforce stricter English proficiencies, but that, too, would require funding. The current conservative government betrayed its intentions there when it attempted to foot students with a greater share of the university bill. And the economic situation isn’t favorable to corporations and organizations.
But there’s hope.
The centrist political party Ciudadanos has promised to increase research funding to 3 percent of the GDP and encourage more young researchers. They vow to “promote the scientific culture in Spain.” The up-and-coming, leftist party Podemos has made similar promises, plus those to increase public access to scientific knowledge and incentivize the return of scientific talent that has emigrated. Both parties draw strong support from youth, which may indicate a cultural, generational shift. And eventually change.
As such, in the conflict of economic, political, and cultural interests, the resolution may lie in the oft-forgotten third: cultural values. I invite Spaniards to re-evaluate the role of investigative sciences in driving a nation’s economy, public health, and more. Spain has the talent to revolutionize international science. Although they need not adopt the United States’ germophobia as motivation, they might start with baby steps. Like hand sanitizer.
Or, my personal recommendation, by sneezing into the elbow.