1In 2019, spending on R&D (as a percentage of GDP) was 64% (Portugal) and 57% (Spain) of the average EU-27 level.
2Portugal has more researchers per thousand workers (9.6) than the EU-27 average (8.7), while Spain has fewer (6.3).
3Since 2008, Portugal and Spain’s R&D spending as a proportion of total EU-27 R&D spending has decreased, and levels of gross domestic expenditure on R&D (GERD) have not returned to pre-crisis levels.
4While in the EU-27 on average 55% of all researchers are employed in business, in Portugal and Spain only 38% are employed in this sector.
5Both countries experience a structural gap in employment in knowledge-intensive activities (KIA), especially in high-tech manufacturing.
6The EU Recovery Plan is an opportunity for increasing the demand for highly qualified workers in Portugal and Spain. If such demand is not created, Portugal and Spain will consolidate their position as exporters of talent.
Researchers in Portugal and Spain: a convergence trend broken by the global financial crisis
At the time of joining the European Economic Community in 1986, Portugal and Spain were far behind the average European level in scientific activity and research investments and resources. Gross domestic expenditure on R&D (GERD) as a percentage of GDP in both countries was less than a third of the European average. Since then, both Portugal and Spain have significantly improved their standing in research, at different speeds and through different paths, and moved towards convergence with the EU average. However, the Great Recession that started in 2008 slowed the convergence process.
In 2019, there was still a significant gap in terms of GERD, despite some recovery: Portugal was at 64% of the EU-27 average and Spain was at 57%. However, in terms of human resources indicators, Portugal is doing much better than Spain; Portugal’s number of researchers per thousand workers is above the EU-27 average.
1. Slowing down the convergence and reducing the contribution to the EU-27
The evolution of Portugal and Spain should be analysed in a broader context. The EU-27 had 1.85 million researchers in 2019 (measured in full-time equivalent), with Portugal slightly over 50,000 and Spain around 144,000. Both countries together represent 10.5% of the total number of researchers in the EU-27, while the population of both countries amounts to 12.9% of the EU-27 total population.
Since 2005, the EU has had more researchers per thousand workers than the United States, and the advantage is growing. Worldwide, the number of researchers has increased significantly, but the main push has come from Asian countries, and especially from China, which surpassed the EU-27 in 2014. In 2019, China alone had more than 2.1 million researchers and Japan and South Korea together more than 1.1 million.
Social perception and mass media in the Iberian Peninsula have framed the problem of research and human resources in science and technology as permanent. Only recently have political authorities tried to address the situation with new messaging and policies. Nevertheless, the recent improvements in Portugal and Spain have been insufficient. Between 2008 and 2019, the number of full-time equivalent researchers in the EU-27 increased 46%, but the number of researchers in Portugal and Spain did not increase proportionally. As a result, despite a small improvement in both countries, the Iberian gap has increased, and the countries’ share of the EU-27’s total number of researchers has diminished, especially for Spain. In fact, the relative contribution of Portugal and Spain to the stock of researchers in the EU-27 is now smaller than ten years ago. Only recently has the absolute number of researchers in Portugal and Spain returned to pre-crisis levels, and the number of researchers in the government in Spain is still lower than its historical maximum. Meanwhile, the other two southern European countries in our comparative set of countries, Italy and Greece, have increased their share along with their total absolute numbers.
2. The share of researchers employed in business should be increased in Portugal and Spain to encourage innovation
In both countries, the main challenge is to increase the number of researchers in the business sector, because R&D in business drives innovation. Businesses’ R&D spending and their employment of researchers are interrelated and depend on industrial structures in each country. Portugal and Spain are falling behind their European peers.
In Austria, France, Germany and Finland, the business sector’s contribution to the employment of researchers is above the EU-27 average of 55% (meaning that 55% of the total pool of researchers is employed in business), whereas in Portugal and Spain the share of the business sector is around 38% of the total number of researchers. Researchers are concentrated in the higher education sector in Portugal, while in Spain a significant share are employed in government.
Having more researchers in firms is not merely symbolic. It improves companies’ absorptive capability —that is, their ability to absorb the available technologies and knowledge and to incorporate them into their production and marketing processes to increase productivity—. The challenge of increasing the number of researchers employed in the business sector becomes obvious when we note that the business spending on R&D (BERD) as a percentage of GDP in Portugal and Spain is around half of the EU-27 average. And even the EU-27 average of 1.46% of GDP is well behind that of Europe’s big competitors, such as the United States (2.05%) and Japan (2.60%).
Given the changing employment conditions in the academic labour market, it is fair to expect that fewer postdoctoral researchers will stay in academia in the future than today. This shift could be a chance to create more favourable conditions for the employment of researchers in the private sector, although opportunities will depend on the field of research.
3. More precarity in the employment of researchers in Portugal than in Spain
The public research sector has traditionally been characterised by more stable employment conditions. However, the increasing precarity of postdoctoral positions in academia means that opportunities beyond academia may offer better prospects.
A recent report on scientific authors by the OECD highlights the precarity characterising academic careers worldwide and the need to diversify both training and employment opportunities. In this regard, Spain fares better than Portugal. While in Spain most corresponding authors had the stability offered by an indefinite contract, in Portugal, over half had a fixed-term contract, meaning that they faced job insecurity.
Efforts to protect the research precariat
The expression “research precariat” (the term “precariat” is a play on “precarious” and “proletariat”) has been coined to describe the large group of researchers worldwide who face precarious employment conditions. Between 2014 and 2019, there was a 25% increase in the number of doctorate holders in OECD countries. But many doctorate holders find themselves in a long period of postdoctoral work on stipends, or on temporary, and often short-term or part-time contracts, in academia. Women are disproportionately affected by these conditions and many drop out of academia.
The OECD offers recommendations and policy options to improve the working conditions and professional development of researchers. Portugal and Spain have been implementing policies to address the precarity of research careers, especially at the early and mid-career stages, in line with the OECD recommendations, although there is still a lot of room for improvement.
Portugal recently developed a legal framework to stimulate scientific employment and decrease the precarity of researchers. The new Collaborative Laboratories (CoLAB) foster the employment of researchers in the productive, social and cultural sectors. Portugal also provides tax breaks for businesses that employ doctorate holders and monitors the outcomes of scientific employment policies.
Spain has created the Ramón y Cajal programme to promote the employment of researchers at research centres, the I3 programme, which provides financial incentives to universities and public research organisations to create permanent positions for researchers, and the Torres Quevedo programme, which provides incentives for the employment of doctorate holders in the private sector. In addition, a new initiative will provide indefinite contracts to public employees who have occupied an interim position for some time.
Source: adapted from the OECD (2021b).
4. Lower employment in knowledge-intensive activities in Portugal and Spain
To understand the impact of science and technology in the wider economy, we can look at the distribution of employment in knowledge-intensive activities (KIA), which are business areas in which at least a third of workers have a tertiary education. Both Portugal and Spain have a share of employment in KIA that is below the EU-27 average and of most comparable countries. This indicates that demand for qualified employees in KIA sectors is lower than in most of the rest of Europe, reflecting a structural gap. This gap is also very significant if we look at employment in Portugal and Spain in the manufacturing sectors with the highest R&D intensity —i.e., high and medium-high technology sectors— which is well below the EU average.
Given the structural gap in Portugal and Spain in the demand for highly qualified workers, these countries must spur new developments in knowledge-intensive sectors, which will both increase demand for highly qualified workers and improve the qualifications of workers in traditional industries.
5. Better prospects in higher education and doctoral training outcomes
In its Europe 2020 Strategy, the EU set the goal of 40% of people aged 30-34 having attained a tertiary degree. When this target was launched in 2010, Portugal had significantly lower levels, but Spain was already at that level. Since then, Portugal has improved considerably (from 21.6% in 2011 to 39.6% in 2020), but it is still well behind other countries. Spain has advanced more slowly, but at 44.8%, it stands above the EU-27 average. While these figures suggest an increasingly qualified workforce, notably, the share of tertiary education students enrolled in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) degrees is relatively low in both countries, although Portugal fares slightly better than Spain.
While tertiary education provides the wider basis of advanced training, both countries have invested significantly in doctoral training. Both Portugal and Spain have attained a share of new doctorates in relation to the population that is at approximately the EU-27 average, albeit still well below countries such as Germany and Finland. Notably, in both Portugal and Spain, students begin doctoral programmes later in life than the EU-27 average, meaning that they finish their degrees at older ages, which may have an impact on employment. Nevertheless, the advances of Portugal and Spain in the training of PhDs present opportunities for the future.
The existence of qualified workers is an important condition to sustain the development of research and the production of knowledge that promotes the competitiveness, economic growth and welfare. Portugal and Spain have been developing their human resources consistently from positions of clear lag before joining the EU, but this process has suffered some setbacks through recent economic crises. The limited involvement of the business sector in research remains a challenge in both countries, as do the precarious working conditions of researchers and the lack of employment opportunities in the business sector.
The share of employment in knowledge-intensive activities remains significantly below that of comparable countries. These findings suggest the importance of strengthening demand-side policies to improve the knowledge base of the economy. This is of particular importance when considered in parallel with the outcomes of advanced training, in which Portugal and Spain have made significant improvements and are in some cases above the EU average. There is a risk that imbalances in supply of and demand for researchers may lead to the emigration of these highly qualified workers, if they cannot find opportunities for career development at home. This already occurred to some extent following the global financial crisis of 2008. Policies for the recovery following the covid-19 pandemic, which has also affected the research and innovation system, will be an important opportunity to improve the demand for human resources in science and technology. These policies are fundamental for ensuring that Portugal and Spain do not continuously face brain drain, but rather that their human resources increasingly become a source of competitiveness and welfare.
Laura Cruz Castro, CSIC Institute of Public Goods and Policies, Madrid, Spain.
Luis Sanz Menéndez, CSIC Institute of Public Goods and Policies, Madrid, Spain.
Tiago Santos Pereira, Centre for Social Studies (CES) of the University of Coimbra, Portugal.
Cláudia Sarrico, School of Economics and Management, University of Minho and Centre for Research in Higher Education Policies, Portugal.
CRUZ CASTRO, L., & L. SANZ-MENÉNDEZ (2016): «The effects of the economic crisis on public research: Spanish budgetary policies and research organizations», Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 113, part B, 157-167.
OCDE (2021a): OECD Science, Technology and Innovation Outlook 2021: Times of Crisis and Opportunity, OECD Publishing.
OCDE (2021b): «Reducing the precarity of academic research careers», OECD Science, Technology and Industry Policy Papers,113, OECD Publishing.
SANZ-MENÉNDEZ, L., & L. CRUZ CASTRO (2017): “Research in Spain: the attitudes of companies, Governments and citizens”, Dossier Research and Innovation: challenges and opportunities, The Social Observatory of the ”la Caixa” Foundation.
The STEM field is failing to attract female talent
In Spain, only 16% of STEM professionals are women. We analyse this gender gap.
Evolution of science and technology in Portugal and Spain
The European Union set a target for the business sector to invest 2% of GDP in R&D. How is the convergence of Spain and Portugal towards this goal progressing?
The use of public engagement for technological innovation
What is society’s opinion regarding the possible impacts of science and technology? Establishing citizen participation mechanisms is necessary to generate confidence and detect points for improvement.
Expenditure on R&D by sectors
In 2019, the percentage of total public spending assigned to R&D was 1.24% in Spain and 0.82% in Portugal, both below the EU-27 average.
Innovative companies and business cooperation on R&D activities
In Spain and Portugal, the proportion of innovative companies, and the degree to which these collaborate with other companies and organisations, is below the EU-27 average.