The recessionary climate has disturbed research cycles. All the testimonies gathered for this special EuroScientist issue covering research austerity in Southern Europe concur. If we draw a parallel with Nature, we observe that disturbance in seasonal cycles imposed by climate change is responsible for the disappearance of biodiversity. Unlike animal species, however, European scientists have a fantastic ability to adapt to the disruptions in their research environment. This translates, for example, into the brain drain, reflecting researchers’ move towards more auspicious climes.
Instead of emigrating, public sector scientists may opt for private sector research, as some European governments consider such path the only option. Or simply give up their science career, leaving fewer role models to encourage the next generation to study science and engineering. The fittest—who may be the shrewdest rather than the better scientist—will almost invariably survive. However, the members of the Homo scientificus europaeus species living in the most southern part of its natural habitat, could soon become endangered.
The trouble is that leaving its future in the hands of natural selection may cost Europe its future position on the geopolitical map. Instead, any territory where investment in research is considered a condition sine qua non for further long-term development will play an increasingly important role, globally. Conversely, European countries lured into supporting mainly short-term applied research while failing to support fundamental research would have to bear the consequences. They are less likely to be able to cultivate their capability to broaden their knowledge and make significant discoveries.
Unlike climate change—which is a very complex phenomenon to alter—research policies can more easily be adjusted to benefit the scientific environment. Clearly, providing scientists with the conditions and the adequate level of serenity indispensable for inspiration towards research excellence and innovation has a cost. But for many European nations, this short-term cost may be lower than the long-term opportunity cost of not investing further in research. Unfortunately, these countries have often adopted a frame of mind geared towards short-term bean counting, thus sweeping under the carpet the urgency of adopting long-term initiatives.
It is clear from the testimonies featured in our special issue that solutions to the current predicament of Southern European scientists are not solely an issue of funding, however. Solutions may be found in the details of how research funding is actually spent. Particularly, in redressing the balance between short-term and long-term research investments. And in reviewing funding and hiring evaluation mechanisms. Solutions could also stem from the more systematic adoption of international meritocratic standards in funding and recruitment evaluation. Meanwhile, cutting down on red tape, nepotism and archaic evaluations systems so that scientists can better focus on their research.
Problems identified in Spain, Italy, Portugal and Greece underlined the vital need to develop a public debate, beyond Southern European borders. This is the goal of this special issue: to focus the wider European science community’s attention on how to solve research issues across Europe.
By stimulating the development of a citizen initiative, we would like to invite scientists from across Europe, and beyond, to tell us what needs to change in science policy, both at national and European level. Do we need to revisit its fundamental basis, its objectives, its funding schemes, or even how to ring-fence scientists’ time for research? It is only by sharing your views that voices from the bench will be heard by decision makers at national and European levels.
Sabine Louët, Editor, EuroScientist
Featured image credit: © intheskies - Fotolia.com
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