Academics hired, but not appointed: a new Greek tragedy in the making

In 2008, after 5 years abroad as a postdoc, I decided to return home. I left the offer of a new three-year contract behind in order to return to an insecure Greek research environment. I felt I should offer something back to the Greek university system which I felt I owed a lot to. Now, two years after being elected as an assistant professor and still waiting to be appointed, I have started considering other options such as emigration, out of respect to myself both personally as well as professionally.

I feel my personal story, like that of many other scientists across Greece, is now akin to being part of a modern version of the famous play of Euripides, Iphigenia in Aulis. In this story, the Greek fleet cannot sail for Troy, because the goddess Artemis, offended by general Agamemnon, is withholding the winds. To appease the goddess, Agamemnon must sacrifice his eldest daughter, Iphigenia. Along with around 800 young men and women scientists pending appointment for almost 3 years now, I feel that we are being sacrificed. This time, the sacrifice is part of the solution to calm the strong northerly winds of austerity battering across Europe.

Greece is now in its fifth straight year of recession, after two bailouts and two national elections, with the population being subjected to unprecedented austerity measures and the unemployment rate climbing to 27%.

As the crisis deepened, university and research spending was one of the first victims. Research centres and university budgets were cut by about 30% and 50% respectively while the salaries of scientists and university faculty members were reduced by 20% since the crisis began. The Greek government used to offer competitions for research grants, but in the last 5 years just a handful of calls were announced. Moreover, the majority of successful proposals of all those who rushed in applications, have not seen any money yet.

In this context, it is only natural to ask: can you perform scientific research under these circumstances? A recent article in Nature reveals a remarkable fact: in 2012 the Greek scientific contribution to the top 1% of the most cited articles was 1.13%, while for countries with far less problems like France, it is 0.99%. A possible explanation for this miracle might be that Greek scientists have done really well in obtaining funds from European schemes such as the Framework programmes—where Greek scientists are second in the amount of funds allocated per scientist in Europe.

However, recently the leaders of the 27 member states of the European Union decided to scale back the budget of the ambitious Horizon 2020 research programme for 2014–2020 by about 13%. How much this will affect Greek research does not need great imagination to foresee. To make matters worse, the Greek parliament recently approved the updated fiscal plan for 2013-2016, which is in line with the on-going austerity drive. It includes a decrease by 14.2% of the education budget that would consist of more salary reductions and additional budget cuts for universities and research institutes and frozen recruitment, among other measures. In fact, there has been no new call for faculty members since 2010 in Greek universities! What is more, Greek research has always been underfunded. In 2007 Greece spent 0.6% of its gross domestic product on R&D, a share far smaller than the 1.85% EU average.

Given these conditions, Greek brain drain has reached alarming levels. According to a recent poll, 53% of university-age Greeks are considering emigration, and 17% have already made plans to emigrate. Greece produces large numbers of PhDs but most of them continue on to postdoctoral research abroad. This trend has peaked due to the crisis which also makes their return home very unattractive. In other words, we are facing a future where there will be no new generation to succeed the retiring researchers and academics.

This remarkable assault delivers a very clear message: science and education is not an immediate priority for the Greek government. Greek politicians, aligned with the dominant austerity policies, have no qualms about losing a generation of talented, innovative and highly-skilled workers exactly when society needs them the most. All the talk about scientific knowledge and education as the building blocks of long–term economic growth is just empty rhetoric. And while these policies might prove effective in ruling out the possibility of a Grexit, by neglecting education and science the very real possibility of the bankruptcy of Greece’s future is hanging over us all.

The severity of the situation in Greece and the growing consensus that the avenues followed so far are totally insufficient, demands urgent action: an immediate and bold increase in the budgets of research centres and universities, the announcement of an adequate number of new calls for research grants, the implementation of recruitments of scientific staff, and the immediate placement of all non-appointed faculty members.

This cannot be seen as an expense but rather as a secure investment for the future of the generations to come.

Varvara Trachana

Assistant Professor of Cell Biology (elected, pending appointment for 2 years), Faculty of Medicine, School of Health Sciences, University of Thessaly, Greece, Member of the steering committee of the Initiative of non-appointed Faculty Members of Greek Universities and Co-founder and scientific adviser of Open Scholar, a not-for-profit international community-based organisation dedicated to promote open access.

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