Against adversity, give Greek research breathing space

In Greece, we have been witnessing a violent socio-economic restructuring due to the austerity measures introduced in response to the economic crisis, over the last three years. These measures, dictated by the so called “Memorandums for Economic Stability”, have been applied horizontally and indiscriminately and have led to deep economic recession and high unemployment today reaching 26%. It is therefore inescapable; the scientific community too has been affected. The measures have exacerbated existing problems and created new ones: notably introducing bizarre regulations and increasing bureaucracy. In my opinion, the main obstacles may be summarised as follows.

Research funding in Greece relies to a large extent on the ability to compete successfully for funding from EC Framework Programmes and structural funds. This is not, however, sufficient to offset the limited national support available for research – a stable 0.5% of a shrinking GDP, which translates in real terms to significant cuts in public funding. Nor is the target of reaching 0.6% of GDP devoted to research by 2020 reassuring, given that public investment acts as a catalyst for competitiveness and scientific excellence as well as being a precondition for EC funding.

New legislation stemming from the Memorandum is applied to research organisations without accounting for the specificities of research. As a result, research centres have encountered changes in the legal frame for their operation, which often make no sense and introduce serious obstacles. For example, some research centres used to be classified as legal entities similar to public utility companies. Following objections from the research centres concerned, they have been re-classified as non-government organisations (NGOs)! Not exactly what one would expect for a research centre managing research funds.

Moreover, restructuring efforts aimed at consolidating institutes or research centres has become an end in itself for meeting target downsizing numbers, irrespective of any economic or scientific added value. In addition, unifying umbrella research funding schemes have been proposed without any prior evaluation of their influence on the quality of research. Because of all these drastic changes, the core scientific activity in the country may be badly affected.

In an effort to control expenditure, bureaucracy has been enhanced dramatically through attempts to micro-manage basic operations for the implementation of research projects. Recruiting technical and scientific personnel is extremely difficult even if funding is available. Among others, serious consequences are the obstacles introduced in absorbing Structural Funds available for research.

High and rising unemployment among young people, currently at 56%, together with the deep recession fuel an increasing brain drain. The efforts of the past for reversing brain drain have thus been totally cancelled out. Also keeping—as well as attracting—talented young researchers or prominent scientists has become more difficult. This is due to increasing red tape and legal and financial limitations on the career packages that can be offered.

Despite the above drawbacks, the research community in Greece is still on the average very effective, resulting in an economic return at a ratio of 1 to 3—for every euro invested, it generates three. Several research organisations are poles of scientific excellence and are highly competitive internationally. Their scientific performance in terms of publications and their impact are much above the European average.

And the Greek scientific community has a proven record for successful participation in European research. Further participation in European capacity-building initiatives, such as targeted use of Structural Funds for research through so-called “Smart Specialisation”, may be helpful to assist in recovery, if appropriately designed.

More importantly, if these core research organisations are given the breathing space and autonomy to resume their own scientific development strategies, I am optimistic that these centres will maintain their dynamism and contribution to the national and European recovery.

Prof. Costas Fotakis

President – Foundation for Research and Technology, Hellas (FORTH)

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