One of the scientists who generates the most money in Spain does not get a single euro for her discoveries | Science

One of the scientists who generates the most money in Spain does not get a single euro for her discoveries | Science

The biologist Giovanna Roncador is experiencing a “surreal” situation. She is one of the scientists who generates the most money in Spain thanks to her discoveries, yet she is not receiving a single euro for it. Roncador, who was born in the Italian city of Trento 57 years ago, works at one of the best cancer research institutions in the world, the National Cancer Research Center (CNIO), in Madrid. She directs the Monoclonal Antibodies Unit, which focuses on molecules that are designed in the laboratory to bind specifically to certain cells and be able, for example, to diagnose lymphomas. The sale of these antibodies to international companies generates approximately €1 million ($1.07 million) per year in royalties for the CNIO, but the institution has not shared the benefits with the inventors since 2020 due to a Kafkaesque bureaucratic mess.

“I don’t know what to do anymore, it’s a very frustrating situation. I am truly tired and unmotivated, which is why I have stopped contacting companies to license the antibodies. Why aren’t good workers rewarded? It doesn’t matter if you get it right or wrong,” laments the biologist. Roncador had been designing antibodies at the University of Oxford in the U.K. when she was recruited in 2000 to help found the new leading center for cancer in Spain. She says that even though nobody asked her to, after each new antibody developed for CNIO research, she made a point of contacting the leading companies to present the advances to them. If they were interested, Roncador herself negotiated the agreements, achieving millions of euros in income for her center, a public foundation attached to the Ministry of Science.

The Italian researcher says that her father was a truck driver who quit his job to set up his own auto dealership in his hometown, Mezzolombardo. “My father is very entrepreneurial and he is very good at negotiating, that’s where I get it from,” she explains. Roncador’s greatest success was developing an antibody that specifically targets a subtype of white blood cells, which has revealed new mechanisms of the immune response. Her team designed it with her colleague, Alison Banham, from the University of Oxford. The British scientist has been collecting her profits since 2004, but Roncador only received them between 2014, when the CNIO board finally approved a distribution system, and 2019, just before the Ministry of Finance halted the payments.

The biologist provides an example. If a company earns €100,000 ($107,000) a year selling one of her antibodies, the CNIO receives about €15,000 ($15,800). After deducting expenses and the percentage reserved for the CNIO itself, less than €6,000 ($6,390) would reach the inventors. In the case of her most successful antibody, almost half would go to Oxford and, of the approximately €3,000 ($3,200) remaining, Giovanna Roncador would receive 65% (about €1,900 / $2,020 annually); her right hand, the biologist Lorena Maestre, 28% (about €800 / $850); and the head of the Protein Production Unit, Jorge Martínez Torrecuadrada, 7% (about €200 / $210). Roncador and Maestre, who are the most affected because they generate the most money, sued the CNIO in Madrid on September 19, 2022, to avoid the expiration of their rights, according to the documentation that EL PAÍS has seen.

Such a hyper-bureaucratized system discourages the entrepreneurial spirit. I am exhausted from investing my time and energy in battles that other countries around us have completely overcome

Giovanna Roncador

The researcher estimates that the sale of 65 of her antibodies has produced more than €8.5 million ($9.05 million) of net income for the CNIO since 2004. The public institution began to share profits with its inventors in 2014, but stopped doing so in 2020. A report from the internal oversight body of the public sector had recommended “the immediate suspension” of the distribution system. “Royalties are a regulatory concept that does not exist in our legislation and lacks regulatory development,” wrote the auditors, who answer to the Ministry of Finance. The report also suggested recalculating the benefits downwards, deducting more for the center’s expenses.

Roncador sighs, sitting in her small office that is decorated with photographs of the singer David Bowie. “Such a hyper-bureaucratized system discourages the entrepreneurial spirit,” she says. “I am exhausted from investing my time and energy in battles that other countries around us have completely overcome.” The biologist is the founder and current president of the European Monoclonal Antibodies Network, with laboratories in 13 countries.

The biologist Giovanna Roncador, at the National Cancer Research Center, in Madrid.Álvaro García

Fifty CNIO researchers wrote to the Ministry of Science on December 12, 2022 to communicate that they considered it “unacceptable” to have to go to court to be able to collect a percentage of royalties for their inventions. “It is not only about economic rights, but also about the way to value and reward exceptional work and promote the transfer of knowledge, thus generating beneficial returns for research and institutions,” argued the signatories, among whom were the director of the CNIO herself, María Blasco, and her predecessor, Mariano Barbacid.

The Ministry of Science responded two weeks later, emphasizing that the new Science Law, reformed in June 2022, establishes that researchers in the state public sector will take “at least a third” of the benefits generated by the exploitation of their inventions. “I am giving the necessary impetus to expedite these last procedures as much as possible,” said the then Secretary General of Research, Raquel Yotti, in her response, sent on December 27, 2022.

But the Kafkaesque process continued the following year. CNIO officials explain that its specialists studied “multiple” alternatives and sent their official proposal for a new distribution system on November 20 to the state agency that had placed the payments on hold in 2020. A spokesperson for the Ministry of Finance confirms that they received it, but “due to some problem” it did not reach the appropriate department until about 20 days ago.

Roncador and her colleagues are “outraged.” Taking into account the sale of antibodies alone, there are 23 CNIO scientists who are affected by the non-payment, plus another 27 who are now working at other institutions. “It is intolerable that the lack of interest and bureaucracy are preventing a solution to a problem that the center and the researchers themselves have agreed to solve, in accordance with the law, yet we are going on three years without a solution,” explains the Italian biologist. Licenses for inventions by CNIO scientists generated €1.6 million ($1.7 million) in 2023, 23% more than the previous year.

The situation is so unusual that CNIO’s top officials support the claims of the researchers who have sued the institution for non-payment of exploitation rights. “Other Spanish research centers do this distribution, which is provided for in current legislation. This is an anomaly that discriminates against CNIO researchers and significantly harms the center’s innovative activity,” a member of the management team told EL PAÍS. “The CNIO, an institution of scientific and innovation excellence in Spain, cannot remain in a state of exception with regard to the distribution of operating profits.”

The biochemist Eva Ortega Paíno, who is the new Secretary General of Research at the Ministry of Science, is very familiar with the problem. She was the scientific director of the CNIO Biobank until the science minister, Diana Morant, hired her three months ago. “At the Ministry we are aware of this situation and we are monitoring it to ensure its resolution. We trust that it will be evaluated as soon as possible,” says Ortega. Everyone is waiting for a response from the Treasury.

In the lobby of the CNIO, there is a giant banner in English and Spanish: “Decent salaries NOW at CNIO! ¡Salarios justos YA en el CNIO!” The workers’ representatives hung it there to protest the fact that the most veteran workers are earning little more than when the center was founded a quarter of a century ago. Giovanna Roncador’s annual salary is 14 installments of €2,681 each (or €37,534 / $39,980 a year). Her top aide, Lorena Maestre, gets 14 checks for €1,794 each (€25,116 / $26,750). These are two of the scientists who generate the most money in Spain, working at one of the best cancer research centers in the world.

Top officials at CNIO said that “until now it has not been possible to give out promotions due to restrictions set by the General State Budget.” Carmen Guerra, president of body that represents CNIO’s workers, explains that this has created a paradoxical situation: new employees start out earning the maximum amount established in the old salary tables, which means they earn more than the veterans, whose salaries have been practically frozen for a quarter of a century. There is an audit underway to “remediate pay inequalities,” according to management. There are also 15 complaints from CNIO workers in progress, according to Guerra.

Guerra herself left a job at the Jackson Laboratory in the United States to join the CNIO in 1998, with an exciting offer. A quarter of a century later, she says that she earns practically the same as she did then, €2,533 ($2,690) a month (with 14 payments a year), despite having more responsibilities now than she did then. Guerra, 57, is the co-inventor of a mouse cell line with very interesting genetic modifications to study the mechanisms of a gene involved in millions of tumors. The CNIO owes her tens of thousands of euros in unpaid royalties.

The biologist Lorena Maestre, 48, explains it bluntly. “What we are demanding are minuscule amounts if you compare them with what people earn at some companies, bankers, economists… It is ridiculous. It appears as though we should be ashamed of receiving a few thousand euros.” Roncador, sitting next to her, agrees: “This system puts us at a competitive disadvantage with the rest of Europe, it makes our country very unattractive for leading scientists. We are generating income of €1 million a year for the CNIO, and it looks like we are begging for spare change.”

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