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Pep Martorell

Associate Director at Barcelona Supercomputing Center

After having led the Government of Catalonia Directorate General for Research (2011-2015), PhD in Computer Science Josep Maria Martorell has returned to his roots in academia as deputy director of a center of excellence just like those the administration is looking to promote: the Barcelona Supercomputing Center.

He would like to go down in history as the only Director General for Research in the Government of Catalonia to have to impose budget cuts and believes moderation is essential to sustainability. Pep Martorell had to face the worst economic crisis just when our research system was consolidating and our innovation system was still in its early days. Now, he says, we’ve come out of it stronger and more efficient than ever. But we have to encourage this sector that is full of opportunities to take the leap and go to market. 


What is the state of Catalan research and innovation after this latest recession?

The recession slowed growth but didn’t cause shrinkage, which proves the solidity of our research institutions. According to the INE, the number of R&D workers in Catalonia is about the same as before the crisis. But it’s true that it is more difficult to raise funds and carry out projects because, for example, the budget for the National Plan has been cut. If the crisis is over in terms of public funding for research, we’ll have pulled through with great maturity. If not, we’ll have problems. Our system will come out of it stronger because now our institutions have become well-oiled machines and everyone is working to keep up quality. Having overcome this with good marks should make us think we shouldn’t keep testing it, because the research world doesn’t deserve that and because we have to take advantage of this solidity to keep moving forward. 


Did the recession hit later than in other sectors? How has that affected things? 

There’s always a gap between when a recession begins and ends and when the government feels it. The government always starts to notice it later but is also the last to feel that it’s over. The decade from 2000 to 2010 was a great time in terms of commitment to research, this dropped off sharply in 2010-2015 and now common sense tells us to expect a period of small, moderate increases. What we’ve learned over the past 15 years is that, for science, moderate, predictable growth is better than huge changes in funding that can’t be consolidated. I think that is something we can do. 


Are we more efficient and stronger than we were 5 years ago? Why?

We’ve had to be more efficient and we’ve gotten the same or better results with less. But we haven’t weathered the recession because we were more efficient; it’s been down to the strength and motivation of our researchers. We have to be careful because there’s a risk of correlating budget cuts with increased efficiency. 


Our research system is very internationally focused. Where are we compared to the rest of the world?

The Catalan government has been clear that they believe it is more efficient to create strong institutions and policies to attract and retain personnel than a project-based policy. That way you attract more outside money and, in fact, raise more funds than you would have been able to invest initially. That’s why our groups get better results than would be expected based on percentage of population. In research we’re among the top countries in Europe in absolute terms, like Switzerland, Israel, Netherlands, Sweden, etc. 


It’s clear that Europe is interested in our research (the figures from the European Research Council, ERC, show this) but are we reaching the market?

The ERC figures say a lot about the openness of the system. We have an exceptional, unique number, because we’re 2nd in Europe in funds per inhabitant. But we’re not taking products to market and it’s difficult to do so without skills in regulatory issues, market competition, taxes and finance. We need aggressively sensitive innovation policies because right now there aren't any tax deductions to push individuals to invest in start-ups; there isn't much help in creating companies. But we must also remember that our system is very young. There are European countries that reached this point in research 20 years ago. We have to give ourselves time. 


As Director General for Research for the Government of Catalonia you gained an in-depth view of our entrepreneurial ecosystem. How would you rate it? 

Its strengths include the large, high-quality public university system; the good network of institutions on the frontiers of knowledge that put us on the map; the strong political and social commitment to science; and the policies fostering stability despite the changing political parties in power. 

Its weaknesses include limited public commitment despite the efforts made, and an even more limited commitment from the private sector, surely because the public sector hasn’t been able to act as a tractor for the private sector. Furthermore, we don’t yet have the necessary critical mass. We have groups and institutions that are very competitive on a local level, but there are few scientific institutions with a critical mass comparable to their international counterparts. We may have too many teams playing in the same league. The 2000 OECD report explained it that way and said that if we wanted to continue advancing we would have to start critical mass processes, joining forces among institutions. And this has been done. Now we have fewer institutions than five years ago, but I feel like it’s not enough. But it’s difficult to change the dynamics of an institution. Maybe the administration hasn’t helped as much as it could have. In recent years, we’ve worked to gain volume because in science size matters, but I’d say not enough. 


What do we need to improve the ecosystem? 

We have good universities, good research centers and a spectacular setting, but the last mile we can’t seem to run is that of public support to leverage private investment: improving the regulatory framework and tax deductions, making it easier to set up companies and create public-private partnerships. The ecosystem needs public-sector incentives that will bring money in the long term. 


Which are the most interesting initiatives you’ve seen in other ecosystems around the world? 

In Israel in the 1980s, when they were in a situation very similar to ours now, they created Yozma, a venture capital fund that was very controversial because it gave management power to a foreigner and because as soon as possible it committed to pulling out of the fund without bringing any capital gains on the amount invested. It funded high-risk projects like a private body alone had never done before, and now it’s gone from $100 millions to $2 billions. It’s an example that’s an exception but now the CDTI and ICF are doing it too. 


What would you have liked to do in your time at the head of the DG Research that you couldn’t?

I’m happy on balance but I do regret not having been able to make the rest of the administration understand that controls for public money in science must be done afterwards and with results in mind. If you give scientists structured freedom and then demand results, this public money is more productive than it is if you monitor it closely from the beginning. 


Where should the health and life sciences strategy in Catalonia head in the coming years?

We’re facing great challenges in maintaining the basic principles of openness, internationalization, attracting talent and freedom for scientists and academics. Likewise, we have to bridge the innovation gap with necessary changes and we have to increase budgets. 


Now you have another professional challenge as associate director of the Barcelona Supercomputing Center – Centro Nacional de Supercomputación. How are you dealing with it?

I’m very happy. I studied Physics but got my PhD in Computer Science. I have worked in managing academic research in both fields, so returning to academia is normal for me. Plus, I’m doing it at an extremely solid, one-of-a-kind institution with very strong scientific leadership that is highly international and has a clear, complex mission because it is a service center in a technology and a research center in that same technology. The challenge, and the vertigo I feel, is coming to an institution in such great health because anything we do has to improve something that is already really good. But I’m very excited about it. 

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