1Portugal and Spain have been brought together through their membership in the European Economic Community in a process of economic and scientific convergence.
2Following a period of sustained growth in R&D intensity in Portugal and Spain, R&D investment stalled following the Great Recession and has only recently resumed.
3In 2019, Portugal and Spain spent 1.40% and 1.25% of gross domestic product on R&D, respectively, which is still far below the European Union’s 3% target.
4R&D performed by the business sector is far behind the target of 2% of gross domestic product, standing at 0.73% in Portugal and 0.70% in Spain.
5Research employment, scientific and technological impact, and societal impact have improved in both countries.
Science and innovation in Portugal and Spain: similar challenges and diverse trajectories
Science and Technology (S&T) in Portugal and Spain have developed along parallel paths following the onset of democracy in both countries and entry into the European Economic Community (EEC), which later became the European Union (EU). The corresponding trajectories contain other points in common, including weak engagement between academia and industry. The two systems also have some important differences, of which regional governance is particularly notable. This article explores some of the main characteristics, common and distinct, of the evolution of both systems to their current configuration.
1. Economic backwardness and short-sightedness
In the 20th century, Spain and Portugal suffered from authoritarian regimes. In 1970, before the onset of democracy, both countries were much more economically backward than neighbouring countries. Their per capita income was far below that of the more developed G7 countries. In that year, Spain’s per capita income stood at 72% of the average for the G7 countries and Portugal’s at 55%. During this period, there was also a lack of investment in research, along with political control of universities and research, which also led to the migration of talented researchers, despite the initial implementation of policies for the education of young researchers, namely through PhD training abroad.
2. Progress and cooperation within the European Union
Following this period of dictatorships, when Spain and Portugal had limited bilateral relations, both countries sought membership of the EEC and became members on the same day: January 1, 1986. Since then, welfare levels in both countries have improved significantly, although with fluctuations along economic cycles. They gradually approached the EU average until the first decade of this century. With the onset of the Great Recession in 2008, the convergence process suffered a significant setback.
3. Advances in the construction of research systems
Over the years, research and development (R&D) activities have been recognised in both countries as an important pillar of well-being and a necessary condition for sustainable economic growth. In this context of “Europeanisation”, the research and innovation (R&I) systems in Portugal and Spain have been slowly but significantly consolidated. From similar starting contexts, the countries have developed parallel trajectories along a process of convergence in science, technology, and innovation, although through distinct cycles. When Portugal and Spain joined the EEC, their investment in R&D was 0.34% and 0.51% of GDP, respectively. In contrast, Germany’s R&D investment was more than five times greater, at 2.63% of GDP.
The distance between Portugal and Spain and the EU average was progressively reduced, and in 2000, when Portugal held the presidency of the EU, Member States committed to the Lisbon Strategy, which aimed for growth supported by a knowledge-based economy. Subsequently, at the Barcelona Summit in 2001, EU Member States set the objective of achieving an investment in R&D of 3% of GDP by 2010. However, this objective is far from being achieved in several Member States, including Portugal and Spain. Progress has been wobbly, with significant setbacks in the past decade that mirror economic instability. Nevertheless, after 35 years of European integration, Portugal and Spain’s R&D investment is now at the level of 66% and 60%, respectively, of the EU average, and the two countries have significantly reduced the gap with Germany and other high-performing EU countries.
4. The European Union has been essential for progress in science
The entry of Portugal and Spain into the EC was also instrumental in giving greater weight to science and innovation in cohesion policies, which initially focused on more tangible investments. Starting in the mid-nineties, EU regional and cohesion policies incorporated R&D and innovation into their objectives. Since that time, EU Structural Funds, which support cohesion and convergence among EU Member States and their regions, represent a very important share of the funding in infrastructures and human resources for R&D in Spain and Portugal. This contribution has been even greater than the direct funding to research organisations through the EU Framework Programmes, the EU instrument dedicated to supporting research and innovation directly.
For example, as reported by the Royal Society with data from EU Financial Perspectives: 2007 2013, 90% of EU transfers to support R&D in Portugal were through the structural funds, while only 63% of the total EU R&D support to Spain came through these funds; in both cases the rest was through the EU Framework Programme RTD funding. With the start of 2021 2027 Multiannual Financial Framework, the EU is continuing to finance R&D, with an additional boost expected in the coming years through the Recovery and Resilience Funds of 2021.
5. A shared challenge: private investment and science-industry collaboration
Portugal and Spain have made progress in R&D investment, but following the setback from the Great Recession, these research systems are still far from attaining the 3% target. They share the same challenge: overcoming low investment in R&D in the business sector, which has negative effects on long-term growth, structural changes in the economy, and social welfare, as well as on opportunities for the younger, more qualified, generation. In this area, unfortunately, there has been little convergence with their neighbours or progress toward meeting the EU target for business expenditure in R&D of 2% of GDP. However, Portugal is showing some positive signs, with private R&D investment outpacing public sector investment.
6. Portugal and Spain’s economies remain specialised in low-technology sectors
The significant gap in business investment in R&D is linked to the sectoral composition of Portuguese and Spanish industry. Low- and medium-low technology sectors — characterised by low levels of R&D investment — still represent a significant share of employment and economic activity. This situation could be expected to affect local business investment in R&D. In fact, Portugal and Spain fare significantly better when the indicator on R&D intensity is adjusted to the sectoral composition of their economies, reflecting the weakness in high-technology sectors. The two countries must overcome the gap with the leading economies and contribute to improving the dynamics of innovation in their economies. Firms with higher technological potential need to invest more in R&D. The growth and multiplication of innovative firms should also be supported, to ensure a broader base of private R&D to push the system forward.
7. Advanced qualifications are not yet reflected in research and innovation employment
Portugal and Spain have invested significantly in the training of young researchers, through support to doctoral training programmes, improving the human resource base for R&I. However, the significant improvements in the qualifications of human resources in both countries have yet to achieve a similar impact on the economy or on the employment of researchers in the private sector. The share of researchers in the private sector in Portugal and Spain is still well below the EU average. This reflects the comparatively low levels of private investment in R&D, and also suggests that there is still greater trust and learning to be developed between universities and industry to facilitate the mobility of people and knowledge. Increased business investment in R&D could lead to greater opportunities for the younger, more qualified generation, which still does not easily envision a research career in the private sector in their home country. Their knowledge, experience, and talent will be essential in the business sector for generating new ideas, developing innovations and contributing to increased economic and social progress, the transformation of the economic structure, and increased convergence with the rest of the EU.
8. The quality and impact of research and innovation systems need improvement
Investment in R&I has increased significantly in both countries. They will have to continue to support this trend to achieve existing investment targets. But it is also important for the quality and impact of such investments to improve. While scientific publications have seen significant growth during the past decades, there is still a gap in scientific impact, as indicated by the Portuguese and Spanish national shares among the world’s most-cited publications.
Patent applications also lag significantly, namely in the business sector. Improvements in the socioeconomic impact of research can be achieved if the focus is not solely on addressing these structural gaps, but also on balancing an increase in outputs with a greater focus on social and economic impact. Specifically, the countries should address global challenges, such as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. Doing so could contribute to providing greater societal support for academic research, improving collaborations between social and economic agents, and increasing the flow of doctoral graduates and their impact on society.
9. Same challenges, different structures and resources
These two public R&I systems have evolved institutionally in different ways. In Portugal there was a proliferation of new institutions, in different models and stages, creating an independent set of research institutes, with autonomy from the universities. This institutional growth has continued more recently with the creation of collaborative laboratories involving academia, companies, public administration, and social economy organisations.
In Spain the system was developed by the national government based on two main sectors (universities and government R&D laboratories), while the regional governments promoted the emergence of a new sector of autonomous research institutions. These institutions operated on the boundaries of traditional institutions and were organised as “regional” networks of R&D centres (e.g., CERCA in Catalonia, IMDEA in Madrid, and CIC in the Basque Country); additionally, regional governments also supported technology centres and research and technology organisations.
Although these trends show a convergence of distinct trajectories, through institutional diversification, there are also important differences between the two countries. In Portugal, while regional bodies have become more involved in R&I policies, the national dimension remains central. In Spain, the process of political decentralisation has also impacted the R&I system, with a large share of the public funds being managed regionally according to regional R&I policies.
10. A tale of two crises: from significant impact to swift recovery?
Following the 2008 crisis, Portugal and Spain have faced a setback in the convergence process in per capita income, especially with regard to the leading EU countries. The setback is most pronounced in R&D and the migration of researchers and young talent. The impact of the recent pandemic crisis is still not fully evident, but there are signs of a more rapid recovery in R&D investment. In fact, in several countries, including Portugal and Spain, the pandemic has promoted new forms of co-creation among researchers in academia, businesses, and users in response to the health emergency. While public funding agencies rapidly provided emergency funding for research addressing the pandemic, the R&I actors also took initiative in developing local solutions, such as covid-19 tests and vaccines, ventilators, protective equipment, and the open sharing of results and data.
The readiness that was demonstrated by the R&I system to address a societal emergency has been generally viewed in positive terms by citizens, as the most recent Eurobarometer survey on public attitudes towards science shows.
In Portugal and Spain, as more widely in Europe, citizens’ trust in science as a source of solutions to societal problems has increased throughout the pandemic, and in both countries, particularly in Portugal, scientists remain very highly respected by citizens. Nevertheless, such trust is not limitless, and in both countries, citizens recognise the importance of the involvement of non-scientists in R&I to ensure that the values and expectations of society are appropriately considered in the process. More than half of the respondents in Portugal and Spain to the Eurobarometer questionnaire believe that science is very complex and report that they do not understand much about it (demonstrating lower confidence and knowledge than the EU average). At the same time, more than half indicate an interest in learning more about research developments.
With the strong European backing through the Recovery and Resilience Funds, Portugal and Spain may emerge more rapidly from the current crisis than from the last one. However, the challenge remains to improve investment, increase impact, create conditions to attract advanced talent, and promote structural change towards a knowledge-based economy, while responding to the digital and climate transitions.
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Scientists and engineers by sex
Portugal, together with Denmark, is an exception within the framework of the EU-27 and has percentages of women scientists and engineers that slightly exceed the European average.
PhD qualifications by different branches of knowledge and by sex
While the participation of female PhD holders in Portugal is situated above the EU‑27 average in all fields of knowledge considered, in Spain the participation of female PhD holders is situated below the European average in the fields of art, humanities and social sciences.
Innovative companies and business cooperation on R&D activities
In Portugal and Spain, the proportion of innovative companies, and the degree to which these collaborate with other companies and organisations, is below the EU-27 average