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SCIENCE

Minute of silence mourns death of Spanish science

Scientists held a minute of silence at universities across Spain on Thursday to protest against drastic cuts to the country's science budget which they say are killing research.

Minute of silence mourns death of Spanish science
Spanish students and teachers at the Day of Action in Defense of Science protest against government's spending cuts at the Complutense University in Madrid. Photo: Gerard Julien/AFP

In Madrid dozens of researchers, some wearing mourning black, others decked out in their white lab coats, gathered at noon at the steps of the science departments at the Complutense University, one of the world's oldest universities, to mark the moment of silence.

The "day of mourning for science" was organized by the Open Letter for Science group, a platform grouping the main scientific bodies in the country.

It was timed to coincide with the 79th anniversary of the death of Spanish neuroscientist Santiago Ramon y Cajal, who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1906.

"We want to send the message that the government is completely paralyzing research in Spain and condemning it to death with its budget policy," Carlos Andradas, the president of the Confederation of Scientific Associations of Spain, told news agency AFP.

Spending on science and research has been cut dramatically as part of the Spanish government's broader austerity programme aimed at reining in a public deficit that has ballooned since a property bubble collapsed in 2008, sending the economy into a tailspin.

Researchers complain there is sometimes not even enough money to pay for gloves, lab coats and basic materials such as liquid nitrogen and that new research posts are few and far between, driving many scientists to leave the country.

Public investment in scientific research fell by 45 percent between 2009, the year after the economic downturn started, and 2013 even though Spain's research and development budget already ranks far below that of other European nations, according to the Confederation of Scientific Associations of Spain.

The government's budget for 2014 sets aside €5.6 billion ($7.6 billion) for civil research and development, a 1.3 percent rise over the previous year and the first increase since 2009.

But critics say the rise in funding is insignificant and they accuse the government of undermining the country's long-term economic prospects by underfunding science.

"It is true that there has been an increase in funding but it is a very small increase. At this rhythm it will take us 30 years to return to the level of funding that we had just three years ago," said Andradas, a 57-year-old mathematician who attended the silent protest in Madrid.

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SCIENCE

Was Columbus actually Spanish? A new DNA study aims to discover explorer’s true origins

Researchers are restarting a DNA study of the remains of Christopher Columbus to try to settle the question of where the explorer came from.

Was Columbus actually Spanish? A new DNA study aims to discover explorer's true origins
Photo: A portrait of Christopher Columbus by Italian painter Domenico Bigordi

Was Columbus from the Italian port city of Genoa, as most historians believe? Or was he Spanish or Portuguese? There are several theories.

Five centuries after his death in 1506, this study could finally end the debate over the geographic origin of the navigator whose voyages on behalf of the Spanish monarchs between 1492 and 1504 opened the door to Europe’s colonisation of the Americas.

The results of this “pioneering study” are expected in October, Jose Antonio Lorente, a professor of forensic medicine at Granada who is leading the investigation, told a news conference.

Launched in 2003, the study achieved a major breakthrough after DNA tests established that bones in a tomb in the cathedral in the southern city of Seville were those of Columbus.

But it was suspended in 2005 because the research team felt that DNA technology at the time required a significant sample of the bones of the explorer “to obtain very little information”, said Lorente.

The research team decided to preserve the bones “until there was better technology” which can use small bone fragments as is the case today, he added.

The DNA of small bone fragments from Columbus which are stored at a vault at Granada University in southern Spain will be compared to those from the remains of suspected family members of the explorer.

Columbus in the court of Spain’s Catholic Monarchs. Artist: Juan Cordero, 1850 (Wikipedia)

It will also be compared with the DNA of people alive with the same family name as Columbus from the different parts of the world where he is believed to have come from.

While Lorente hopes the results will be “totally conclusive”, he acknowledged researchers were not certain they could obtain genetic samples from all the bones “in sufficient quantity and quality¬† to reach a conclusion”.

“The goal is to try to offer as much information as possible for historians and experts to interpret,” he added.

The study is being carried out with the University of Florence in Italy and the University of North Texas in the United States.

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