Austerity damages countries’ international scientific aura, isolating scientists

The news that the Spanish government has pulled the plug on its scientists’ expenses for international scientific committees was greeted with frustration amongst the country’s researchers, back in September 2013. Spain’s Ministry for Economy and Competitiveness announced that it would not cover expenses such as fees and travel for organisations, including the International Council for Science (ICSU). “We want to see all scientists from all countries engaged,” wrote an ICSU spokesperson of this organisation, which gathers scientific academies and scientific unions, representing 140 countries, with a mission to strengthen international science for the benefit of society. Whether European scientists will be removed from bodies such as ICSU through short-term actions of their governments is yet to be seen, but the consequences are foreseeable.

“This will have an impact in terms of reputation and in terms of how much people in the field can count on Spanish scientists,” says Amaya Moro-Martín, astrophysicist at the Center for Astrobiology in Madrid. Spanish science has drifted into the doldrums in recent years, with a swell of budget cuts equalling between 40% and 50% since 2009. Moro-Martín herself is packing her bags, destination NASA.

Spanish researchers are not alone in feeling threatened by international isolation due to austerity measures at home. George Kollias, professor of physiology at the University of Athens Medical School, in Greece, who recently received an Advanced ERC grant for his work on inflammatory conditions, stresses the importance of a country maintaining a good reputation and collaborator’s trust. This matters, not only at the scientific level, but also at the administrative, managerial and financial level.

Unfortunately, austerity could seriously take the shine off a country’s international scientific aura. “There has been pressure from the Greek government to reduce costs at all levels, including participation in international organisations such as EMBL, CERN and others,” Kollias notes

This collateral damage has previously been experienced by other international research organisation such as the Human Frontier Science Program (HFSP), based in Strasbourg, France. “If austerity measures are put in place, the first programmes to be cut are international collaborations because support for these programs goes before any domestic programmes,” says Guntram Bauer, director of scientific affairs and communications at HFSP. Fortunately, his programme had good news this summer when an intergovernmental conference secured their budget for the next three years.

But not everyone is so fortunate. “We have been suffering already some international reluctance when some collaborative projects are launched,” says José Manuel Pingarrón, analytical chemist at the Complutense University in Madrid. “The non-payment of country fees in some very relevant international projects and institutions, [and] the almost null budget for bilateral or multilateral actions, creates a distrustful atmosphere which is not deserved by Spanish research groups that have demonstrated their competence to participate actively In these kinds of collaborative projects.”

Cuts could also undermine the capabilities of the very same international scientific initiatives that could help guide us out of the austerity storm. “Beyond the obvious isolation effect that this would have for individual countries, these budget cuts would in fact be quite problematic for the international organisations themselves, given that several countries face financial hardships and are considering similar measures,” Kollias says. “In my opinion, research and innovation is a key way out of the crisis. Any actions that undermine them will prove detrimental for the national economy in the long term,” Kollias adds.

Some of the economic heavyweights in Europe continue to invest in their scientists. But in many countries—particularly in Eastern and Southern Europe—scientists are struggling to be heard among the din of economic cuts. However, despite the budgetary constraints of austerity, “the main hurdle is not the lack of money,” observes Kollias, “but rather low prioritisation and erratic planning.” This means that the lack of strategic planning appears to be a major issue.

He believes that smaller countries, especially in niche activities where they can show specialisation, can still influence international developments. The condition of success is that their contribution constitutes part of a coherent strategic plan and receives political backing.

Finally, Kollias says that networking and keeping up with international developments is important in order to develop and maintain state-of-the-art research and technological facilities.

Featured image credit: Michael Heiss

Anthony King

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