Portugal: Filling up a glass that is already half-full

Early this year, the news hit the Portuguese scientific community as a cold blow: the national agency for science and technology FCT was unable to fund all of the research projects rated as excellent. Needless to say, this unprecedented event immediately caused uproar among researchers across all disciplines. But as often happens, where some scream outrage, others see a ray of sunshine.

What happened was that we saw a discrepancy between the number of researchers developing projects internationally acknowledged as excellent, and the amount of funding available for scientific research. Over the past few years, Portugal expanded the number of top-notch scientists, who for the first time were not fully financed. In an effort to do what is best for Portugal, FCT chose to hire the youngest. And since the budget will not stretch, other researchers will now need to seek alternative sources of financing.

On the one hand, the lack of funds is a cause of concern because science is costly, requires time and is determinant to the country’s development. On the other hand, the situation reflects the extraordinary development of Portuguese science in recent years — a fact that is worth emphasising. Between 2005 and 2010 alone, the number of full-time scientists working in R&D research grew from 21,126 to 46,255. And while in 1999 the state invested 0.5% of the GDP in R&D activities against 0.7% by the EU-27, by 2011 the country had already reversed this trend: Portuguese allocation was at 1% of the GDP against 0.7% by the EU-27.

Meanwhile, the number of women working as scientists has also grown as a natural reflection of the increase of female students in Higher Education. Since 1985, the number of female students outweighs that of male counterparts at university. It is therefore not surprising that in 2010, more women got a PhD than men as reflected in the ratio 910/756. It is only a matter of time until the presence of women leading institutions and companies reflects the true demographic landscape of Portuguese education. We will continue to call for greater female presence in science, but we cannot forget that for too long science was for scientists. As a result, the attraction power among the population was scarce. Additionally, one needs to remember that some changes come in decades, and therefore cannot merely be measured in terms of school semesters or official mandates.

Although more statistics could be brought to light, I do not wish to overwhelm you with figures. While these numbers may appear rather low to some, they nonetheless represent a very significant and consistent effort on the part of successive governments to elevate Portuguese science to the standard of its international peers.

There is a consensus that science will shape much of our future world in the next decades, impacting our health, transportation, environment or education, to mention just a few key societal domains. It is therefore vital that researchers, but also the general public, demand of governments all across the EU that public money be well spent and public policies best informed. The choices we make now, not just on election day but every day, will dictate the quality of life for millions of Europeans.

Being a responsible scientist therefore calls for a lot more than carrying out lab experiments, writing papers or preparing posters for conferences. Let’s turn the Chinese Year of the Snake into the Year of the Scientist. We need to have more visibility, communicate more and better, not just to elites but to wider non-expert audiences.

After all, whether the glass is half-full or half-empty is our choice. We are the ones filling it up.

Maria Carmo-Fonseca 

Executive Director of the Institute of Molecular Medicine of Lisbon University, Portugal.

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