John Ioannidis

Free Greek science from political hampering

The Greek political class has yet to support research in a meaningful way

Greece is one of the richest European countries. My personal yardstick for counting wealth for a nation is scientific excellence. According to Scopus, there are approximately 200,000 distinct authors of scientific papers with Greek surnames. Per Google Scholar, there are at least 30 Greek scientists with Hirsch h-index >100 and who have also published highly influential papers or books as first or last authors.

Citation metrics do have limitations, but this is far more than what is expected for a population of 11 million and compares favorably even against research superpowers. Greeks celebrate science and excel in research.

However, half of the Greek-surname authors publishing in 2012 had a working address outside of Greece, and only 1 of the 30 top-cited Greek scientists work primarily in Greece. Most European nations–even Germany–lose many of their best minds. But the combination of abundant highly qualified scientists and brain drain in most extreme in Greece.

Political interference

The roots of this problem affect European science at-large. Besides the lamentable lack of sufficient levels of funding for science, other impeding factors include stiff hierarchical systems that stifle young investigators, nepotism, general corruption, and political interference.

Different institutions suffer to a different extent from these problems. On average, Greece probably has had less stiff hierarchy than Germany, less nepotism than Italy, and less general corruption than Eastern Europe, but it has particularly worrisome political interference into university affairs. These vices reinforce each other and the economic crisis makes them unfortunately even more prominent.

Political parties have long devastated Greek universities. Many academics see university careers simply as a step towards politics. Each government (regardless of which party rules) includes scores of professors, almost all of whom have never published any influential work in their career. The current government includes 14 university professors with a median of 65 citations per Google Scholar.

Meritocracy in the doldrums

Despite their quarrels, all parties collaborate in mutually distributing academic power among people they control. Eventually, despite appearances, there is practically only one political party: its span covers everything from extreme-left to extreme-right, the common denominator being lack of meritocracy. Power-seeking tramps ideology and power-seekers migrate across this span to suit their needs.

The example of the current prime-minister, Alexis Tsipras, illustrates this point eloquently. He was born in a family who made a fortune as big public work contractors during the extreme-right dictatorship. He subsequently grew as leader of the communist youth that occupied vandalised university premises, led a radical-left party into nonsensical populism and formed a government jointly with right-wing nationalists. And now, he uses social democrat ministers to execute a conservative austerity agenda, which he claims to detest.

Right- and left-wing party members routinely join forces to share spoils and expel excellence from universities. Once, a right-wing politician was being promoted with fake citations in his CV: he could not have been cited by papers published when he was a child. The radical left-wing faculty in the same lab came to his support claiming that the candidate had bequeathed–literally!–these citations from his dead mentor. That was because his mentor left them his citations as an inheritance. The radical left-wing professor was using the same citations for his own CV to get promoted himself. The university leadership accepted the excuse.

Other cases are less laughable and become grave, for instance, when serious academic whistleblowers get condemned by civil and criminal courts, while fraudsters remain unscathed.

Not surprisingly, leading teaching awards are given occasionally to incoherent syndicalists; research awards may go to fraudsters; deans and rectors of universities include professors with no citations during their entire career.

The pervading lack of meritocracy is demoralising.

Leadership issues

Moreover, in the last 5 years universities have lost retiring tenured professors. But then they have no funds to replace them, given the harsh austerity. There are rare openings for recruiting non-tenured faculty. One position was recently taken by the wife of the prime-minister, Peristera Baziana, who holds 64 citations as per Google Scholar. As a result of the lack of academic positions in the country, thousands of Greek scientists with thousands of citations to their work have left and are leaving Greece.

Bringing people back to Greece would require a lot more than what is currently being done for research, in the country. The proportion of GDP invested to research and technology in Greece is 0.6%–the same as Uganda. It has been as low even before the crisis hit. The ruling party’s programme pledges measures that will strengthen political party presence in universities, such as championing “eternal students.” These are students who take for ever to graduate and who often include leaders of party youth organisations and future ministers and prime-ministers. Worse, it also anticipates elimination of advisory councils, the only way that Greek diaspora researchers can now practically influence Greek academia.

The new minister of education, Nikos Filis, is a journalist and the editor-in-chief of the main party-affiliated newspaper Avgi. His vice minister, Theodosis Pelegrinis, is a professor, former rector of the University of Athens with only two citations in Google Scholar. He is opposed in the parliament by a right-wing party professor Theodore Fortsakis, also former rector of the same university with only 35 citations in Google Scholar. The new government claims that any new university legislation will first be publicly discussed. From prior experience, this is probably a bad joke: one will hear the voices mostly of organised political groups, not of serious scientists.

Democracy in danger

If a measure of democracy is the ability of a country to retain its best and brightest, Greek democracy is in danger. Many serious scientists still struggle against the odds in Greece with salaries that are so low that they only allow researchers to scrape by below poverty levels. They also resent with massive scorn the well-connected mediocrity that occupies positions of power.

The international scientific community should support the best Greek researchers to thrive. I have discussed elsewhere some practical issues on how to do this. But clearly, more ideas are needed on how to bypass politicians and not have whatever available funds spent by populists and corrupted leaders. Researchers who want to do good science without becoming party members should be allowed to live in this beautiful country and make it a bulwark of world-class scholarship.

John P.A. Ioannidis

John Ioannidis is professor of medicine, health research and policy, and statistics at Stanford University where he holds the C.F. Rehnborg chair in disease prevention, directs the Stanford Prevention Research Center (SPRC) and co-directs the Meta-Research Innovation Center at Stanford (METRICS). He was professor at the University of Ioannina School of Medicine in Greece before moving to Stanford in 2010.

Photo credit: John Ioannidis

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2 thoughts on “Free Greek science from political hampering”

  1. A few years there was a professor of theology in a Greek university. He managed to make his daughter, his son and his daughter’s husband academic staff members. This had nothing to do with politics. He just wanted to solve the employment problem of his relatives. No other staff member objected to this because they made a favor to this professor. So in the next round of hiring the department would hire the relatives of others.  A few years ago, when the government cut salaries, many departments “promoted” lecturers and assistant professors to associate professors to get a rise in their salary… Things like these are very common in Greek universities. In fact there was a  “Greek University Reform Forum” where people discussed and talked about such matters. But since nothing happened, the moderator simply abandoned the effort…