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Who better to answer the question of why Spain is lagging so far behind in terms of innovation than the Minister himself? I recently visited Pedro Duque along with a few international colleagues. Former astronaut who now heads the Ministry of Science and Innovation as an independent member of Pedro Sánchez’s government. “Spain has much more to offer than just tourism,” his overall conclusion was. “There’s plenty of high-quality technological expertise, but we need to create scope for that.”

For a long time Duque was one of the best navigators on shore. As a former astronaut for the European Space Agency, he had all kinds of ideas to help the southern European country move forward technologically. But to his horror, Duque saw that little or nothing was being done about it. Until the Social Democrat Sánchez suddenly came to power unexpectedly in June 2018 and contacted Duque. “Then there was no way back,” says the 56-year-old Spaniard with a laugh. “Because as a minister, I took everything into my own hands.”

Changing mentality

It’s up to Duque to put science and innovation high up on the agenda. Following the fall of the government last year in February, he’ s now busy with his second term – a new left-wing coalition formed by PSOE and Podemos. With its spending of 1.2% of its GDP on research and development, Spain is lagging far behind the European average spending of 2.1%, the ultimate goal being 3%. “We need to change our mentality,” Duque says. “Because if we really want to catch up, we have to invest in innovation, make better products of our own and in doing that, automatically pay higher salaries.”

Investing in the far distant future is not in Spaniards’ blood. Small and medium-sized businesses are the engine of the Spanish economy and this is where employers and employees look towards – the present. With a minimum salary of €950, survival is the most important thing for a lot of people. “So we, as a government, have to lend innovation a helping hand. We have various programs for that.” He adds: “For example, companies all over the country can use technology centers for developing their own products.”

But Duque is also thinking big. For example, there is €70 million available for so-called ‘moonshot missions.’ A distant goal is formulated for the future and the idea is that all kinds of new technology will be developed on the path towards that goal. If any of these interim goals are accomplished, then more support will be given. This could include making batteries in electric cars more sustainable. “We have to start realizing that innovation can really pay off,” says Duque. “Good Spanish scientists shouldn’t have to set their sights on other countries.”

European lunar mission

Visiting the former astronaut wouldn’t be complete without the question of whether there should even be a European on the moon. His face lights up with a smile. “I believe that for some reason, the Americans want to make a new trip soon. They’re planning to do that in 2024. A European mission is only possible if we all join forces. But now other goals are more important. If we want the entire European Union to move forward, we must seek convergence. So that knowledge is generated everywhere and living standards are raised everywhere. A lunar landing is not much of a priority in Europe right now.”

Read Koen Greven’s previous columns on Spanish innovation here.