Copyright: Gustavo Frazao

As the crisis deepens in Portugal…

Dear Editor,

As the crisis deepens in Portugal… The problem is what will be; much more than what has been.

Southern Europe countries are crossing a war-like time that will diminish them for the next generations. Research, whether it has been going on for 100 years or less, is not an intrinsic part of these countries cultural paradigm. It has lately become rationalized as intrinsic to economical development and richness, but the superficiality of such rationalization led to immediate denial as the crisis installed.

In Portugal, the last 25 years meant a jump from nothing to everything. A vibrating scientific community developed through small but steady financial support covering all scientific areas. Since 2011, the situation degraded extremely fast. Governmental agency for funding science – FCT – decreased the financial support for research units in >30%. Calls for projects, while kept opening, reduced the probability of success to as low as ≤10%, and projects rated as excellent were not financed. Additionally, liquidity became erratic.

Research in Portugal is almost exclusively done at Universities and associated R&D units. The global financial support for Universities decreased in ≥25%. This implicates many constraints, importantly, less human resources and insufficient support for teaching activities. Many defend that this contributes to more efficiency – less student cost – without critically compromising the quality of higher education service.

The problem is that it ultimately reduces dramatically the weight of research activities in the workload of each researcher. But maybe worse is the steep regression in the autonomy of universities, which ongoing transition to foundations, that would have equipped them with management freedom for finding alternative ways of funding themselves, was abruptly interrupted. Together with universities, since 2011, research units within faced large bureaucratic impasses, particularly incompatible with EU projects. An example of these drawbacks is the so-called Law of Budget Equilibrium (Lei do Equilíbrio Orçamental) that criminalizes the members of the management councils if they do not maintain a balance each year identical to the year before, actually, as in December 2011.

As much as researchers dismay towards FCT may be “saved” through EU funding, getting funded by EU demands itself for investment, which presently is difficult, unless you already have a EU project. Without proper national funding for research and universities, at the end of the day, laboratories and expensive equipment face aging/inadequacy or shutting down.

So much about scientific knowledge and education being the building blocks of long-term economic growth! That is just empty rhetoric, in Portugal as in EU. The upcoming Horizon 2020 is going to finance mostly applied science, involving a large number of SMES, which makes one think whether EU is not actually financing economy through science budgets. The key word of this programme is innovation. But the oddest thing is that this is verbalized as springing out of a forced interaction between researchers and industrials. Science is therefore transformed into a short-term exquisite way of generating added value, or solving immediate problems of industrials unable to finance development on their own. ERC is predicted to have around 17% of the H2020 budget. Therefore, “blue science” is left for a few chosen afloat in Noah Arch…

But there is worse: excellence. The concept per se has nothing wrong. Neither is it wrong to pursue and reward excellence. But in Portugal the quest for excellence became an obsession. FCT conveys the idea that, by a process of natural selection generated by researchers and research units’ scarce resources and extremely low funding success, only the excellent will survive, and public funds will finally be in well spent. But excellence does not grow like mushrooms after rain. It takes a favorable environment and years of large investments, updated infrastructures, a critical mass of people, and access to a long-lasting supply of promising post-graduation students, which in turn will not exist without a strong, creative and quality university scientific environment. In spring 2012, a survey to graduation students of all universities in Portugal, revealed that 85% were planning to emigrate after graduation or master.

When a population size and genetic diversity is extremely reduced, you never know when you already passed the critical point of no return and face inevitable extinction. Politicians should study Biology.

Cândida Lucas

Associate Professor, Portugal

Featured image credit: Gustavo Frazao via Shutterstock

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One thought on “As the crisis deepens in Portugal…”

  1. One of the strengths of the American system of higher education is its great variety. From small colleges with only several hundred students to large state-supported universities with tens of thousands of students, and from two-year community colleges with vocational programs to privately funded research universities, American higher education meets a wide variety of needs. For students, the right choice has much to do with possible career paths, financial constraints, and geography. In other words, it has to do with what they feel called to do and to study, how much they can afford, and whether or not they want to leave home. What matters most in the end is the appropriateness of the school to the aspirations of the student.