Credit Vitor Antune CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

A final plea to save Portuguese science

Portuguese scientists’ last attempt to rescue its research centres is still up in the air

A group representing various research centres in Portugal met, on 27th July 2015, the recently appointed president of the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology (FCT), Maria Arménia Carrondo. This was a plea to reverse the latest round of budget cuts to research centres. Unfortunately, the meeting did not produce positive results.

Meanwhile, a report by an international panel that evaluated FCT’s policy and functioning in quite a eulogistic manner, also failed to address this issue of budget cuts in detail.

The present administration of the FCT is due to cease office after the national parliamentary elections, on 4th October 2015. Portuguese research centres are now planning to organise a national-scale appeal to rescue Portuguese research. This is a last ditch attempt by the country’s science community to influence the programmes of political parties running for government in October, in the hope to reverse the situation.

National evaluation

The drama of Portuguese science has been unfolding steadily for the past three years. The latest episode was the highly controversial evaluation of Portuguese research & development (R&D) centres, which was outsourced to the European Science Foundation (ESF).

At the end of the first phase of evaluation, nearly 50% of R&D units had been excluded from access to meaningful funding, due to evaluation scores of “good” or less. Once the second phase of evaluation was concluded, remaining R&D units were notified that funding had been cut on amounts as high as 66% of their original requests–including for structural funding to cover each centre’s general running expenses and strategic funding to implement each centre’s project between 2015 and 2020–which had been considered and approved by evaluators.

In addition, the FCT has now decided that eligibility of research centres for national research funds under the Portugal 2020 funding scheme would be based on evaluation scores, rather than on the merits of individual projects. Portugal 2020 is the part of the national funding scheme co-funded by structural funds from the European Commission. Furthermore, only centres previously evaluated as being “excellent” and “exceptional”–corresponding to about 30% of R&D units that existed in 2013–would be eligible. This rule also applies to competitive calls for projects and scholarships, where the host institution score is part of the previous evaluation. Therefore, current eligibility for funding has been reduced to 30% of the country’s R&D units.

Lack of dialogue

On Monday 27th July 2015, a group representing various research centres met Maria Arménia Carrondo, the recently appointed President of FCT. They raised the issues of current research policies likely resulting in asphyxiating 70% of research centres. Arménia Carrondo responded: “FCT will do everything in its power to minimise the negative impacts of the evaluation process.”

As the group was leaving the meeting, they were surprised to first hear about a briefing from the Ministry of Education and Science, which announced the results of a new independent evaluation of FCT’s policy, including an assessment of the previous national evaluation of R&D units. The spokesperson for this evaluation panel, Christoph Kratky, was previously a member of the ESF Governing Council when FCT commissioned its national unit evaluation. The report was presented on Tuesday 28th July 2015, by Professor Kratky, in a exclusive ceremony to which the presidents of R&D units were not invited.

Criticisms

Regrettably, the mounting criticisms of the evaluation of R&D units, provided by associate laboratories, R&D units, and the board of Portuguese Rectors–through all available official means–are not addressed in detail in the report.

The report concludes: “There are a few minor procedural points, which the panel believes FCT could have followed more closely, although the panel sees little indication that these inconsistencies significantly affected the outcome of the evaluation.” It also adds: “Some members of the scientific community expressed concerns regarding the conversion of the scientific evaluation into funding decisions for the Units. The panel agrees that the procedures should have been specified in advance and these procedures should have been followed.”

Cuts

However, the new report does not make any mention of the cuts announced after the evaluation was completed. Nor does it mention that PhD and postdoctoral positions distributed in recent competitive calls have been reduced to levels comparable to those of 2005, including the new type of contracts introduced by the present administration of FCT.

Furthermore, according to FCT data, only 13% of project and PhD applications have been successful. This shows that in recent years the national research system has been deprived of funding. And the country has been divesting, putting the future of the next generation of its highly educated workforce in a challenging position.

Regardless, the report remains encouraging of FCT policies and further recommends restricting postdoctoral appointments to a maximum of three or four years. The report also suggests reducing the number of applicants for competitive project calls by, for example, “preventing postdocs on fellowships from applying”. If applied, such new norm will increase success rates in project calls without addressing the underfunding issue.

Next steps

The Portuguese scientific community is now ready to mobile in the wake of recent developments, namely the unsuccessful meeting with the President of FCT and of the recent report on the evaluation of FCT itself, which will no doubt be used to argue for a continuation of present policy. Now, a group of research centres is considering the organisation of a national-scale initiative to exert pressure on political parties running for government in the forthcoming election.

They will appeal to parties to include in their programme the requirement to revisit the results of R&D units’ evaluation. And of the funding distribution that resulted. They will also ask for the reversal of the cuts introduced after the evaluation.

Finally, they will also call for policy changes that promote sustainable growth of the Portuguese national science system and productivity. They are fiercely opposing the current resource distribution strategy, along the lines of: the “winner takes it all”, which the present government has been pursuing in the name of “excellence”.

Filipa Vala

Postdoctoral Fellow on an FCT grant at the Centre for Ecology, Evolution and Environmental Change, Lisbon, Portugal.

Featured image credit: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 by Vitor Antunes

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