Homo scientificus Europaeus meeting

If research and education is expensive, try ignorance

The recession has hit hard the investment and human resources of science in many States, and even in the EU budget. The cuts were especially hard-felt in countries of Southern Europe such as Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal. But science is the way out of the recession. This is because Europe remains a cultural reference. And also because an economy based on knowledge allows Europe to compete internationally and to improve and maintain the quality of life of its citizens.

A recent panel discussion discussed the necessary steps that need to be taken to lead Europe out of the recession. It was held at an event entitled “homo scientificus Europaeus: the search for a sustainable future for European science,” held at the Ateneu of Barcelona, in Spain, on 8th November 2013. It brought together some of Europe’s most active scientists committed to the defence of the science on the continent.

The full video of the event is available in a combination of Spanish and English, below.

Evolution of research

There has been a clear shift in the way science has been performed in Europe. Jose Mariano Gago, former Minister for Science of Portugal warned that the European scientific gap could be widening due to resources issues. Particularly because the US budget for science is higher than all national and EU research budgets together. However, “Science in Europe is not dying, but is not progressing as European scientific publications are on the rise,” Gago said.

Solutions would stem from developing an economy based on knowledge, according to Federico Mayor Zaragoza, president of the Peace Culture Foundation. He believes that scientists can be active and participate to the public decision making. What is more, “for the first time in history we start to have women in power. The change is now visible. We can have an evolution, to keep what must be kept, and change what must be changed,” he said. Finally, 80% of people are not living the developed world, and this situation is not sustainable. Food, energy, health, research and education are the priorities that science should tackle.

Leave research, emigrate or become precarious

Countries that invest less in R&D are the countries that have just been rescued, according to Amaya Moro-Martín, Ramón y Cajal researcher at CSIC in Madrid, Spain, and developer of the association of scientists Investigación Digna. She believes that this situation is not accidental. “Spain has set a goal of reaching 2% of GDP on R&D in 2020, which does not make us competitive compared to other countries that have more ambitious goals and to a lesser term,” said Moro-Martín.

She explained that the expenditure on R&D has declined by 42 % between 2009 and 2014. To hide this budget drop, the credit have officially been increased, but in two third of the cases not allocated. All this affects the scientific community. Since 2011, the budget for research projects of the R&D National Plan has been cut by 41%. In addition to the cuts, there are also delays. The last R&D National Plan was approved with 11 months delay, for example. This makes the researchers who have no fixed job elect one of three choices: leave research, emigrate or become precarious.

Brain drain

As a result, there is a brain drain away from counties like Spain, and no opportunities for foreign researchers to come to the country. “There are few researchers in Spain and they are not expensive. The productivity of a Spanish researcher is the same as a French researcher, but salaries can be as low as half that of their French counterparts. As a researcher at CNRS earns about 60,000 euros/year, a researcher at the CSIC with the same category earns about 30,000 euros/year. Spain has to invest in R&D in order to have a different economic model and avoid future crises,” Moro-Martín said.

Her views were echoed by José Manuel Fernández, from the Spanish Federation of Young Researchers. “When research career is over, researchers wonder whether or not to continue their investigation. In Spain it has taken 15 years to get contracts from fellowships. A quality research career needs flexibility, stability and continuity, avoiding brain drain to other countries. The doctoral thesis should end with contracts to avoid working for free. “

Another country suffering from brain drain is Greece. “If education is expensive, try ignorance” Varvara Trachana, an assistant professor of cell biology at the University of Thessaly in Larissa–whose appointment has been pending for two years. “In Greece, there are researchers who carry two to four years without a steady job or with very precarious contracts. As a result, brain drain and exile have reached outrageous levels.

Since 2010 there has been no call for new places in Greece in any universities or research centres. “The staff has been reduced and the quality of higher education and scientific research has been degraded. The budgets of universities and research centres have been reduced by 50%, and the subscriptions to scientific journals have been not renewed. The Greek Ministry of Education wants to reduce by 40% more the staff working in universities,” concluded Trachana.

In the discussion it emerged that it would not be a problem if 30% of researchers were to leave these Southern European countries as long as they attracted the same amount of researchers. Currently, this is obviously not the case.

Next steps

Italy suffers from the same kind of problems too, according to Francesco Sylos Labini, albeit with a different intensity. “Politicians are interested in the short term, not in the long term. Then, the issue is how to make them interested in science? Science requires money and time, and also exploring new ways of exploration. I am a member of ROARS (Return On Academic ReSearch) to fight the neoliberal attack to education and research. I am also involved in feeding the public discussion with scientific evidence from the academic world, that is essential in order to find the way in a world where ideology and economic interests dictate the agenda”, explained the Italian researcher.

Finally, the discussion focused on the lack of long-term planning in research. Moro-Martín said we need a state agency that controls a multi-year budget, with a long-term scientific policy.

Raul Toran

Vice-president Catalan Association of Science Communication

Featured image credit: Esther Marín

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