Portugal in a research maelstrom

The recent election of Jean Claude Juncker and the nomination of Portuguese national Carlos Moedas, as Commissioner-designate for Research, Science & Innovation, raise important questions about the role of science in Europe. It also raises questions about how the EU programs in this area will be managed. The mission letter of Juncker to Carlos Moedas already provides some indication of an overall orientation—ongoing in Southern countries—towards a relatively restrictive policy on funding award and operating grants. The trends is towards focusing on a limited number of projects and researchers. This approach is in line with an ideology where only scientists recognised as reaching a certain level of excellence are entitled to pursue support.

This policy has weakened the relationship between research centers and the grant holders. It has also created an invisible market where universities and research institutes with greater resources seek to systematically attract these grant holders. The consequences of such policy are already being felt in some areas of Europe affected by the financial and fiscal crisis, namely in the South. Many researchers from these countries have elected to pursue their research careers abroad, due to the pressure they were subject to at home. This, in turn, has resulted in deepening the qualification gap and reducing these countries’ competitiveness. And, ultimately, this has affected the internal balance within EU regions.

The EC’s goal of creating an internal market of individual researchers appears to have finally been reached. Indeed, many scientists at the service of the big foundations and industrial conglomerates are now wandering through Europe with no institutional attachment. Under this new order, the degree of excellence of institutions has lost its relevance, as candidates compete in an open market where only their individual capacity to fit in the expected profile matter.

In this context, several scientific disciplines no longer have a place in Junker’s Agenda for Jobs, Growth, Fairness and Democratic Change. This is due to their apparent lack of vocation to produce marketable products. This narrow view of what should constitute research has been criticised by the likes of Nobel Prize-winning economist Edmund Phelps, who argues against treating an economy as an equation. If “job creation is a matter of slotting humans into identifiable opportunities, and economic growth is a matter of increasing the stock of human or physical capital, while exploiting scientific advances,” Phelps believes, this “is a dark view of modern economies, and a depressing blueprint for the future.”

Moedas was until recently an ex-employee of investment bank Goldman Sachs and real estate consultancy Aguirre Newman España. He is known for his aversion to priorities in public policy during the negotiations between the Portuguese government and the Troika (the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund) designed to bring the country out of the financial crisis.

Moreover, he was part of a government that undertook the biggest attack ever made to the Portuguese scientific system, carried out by Miguel Seabra, the new head of Brussels-based association of European research funding and performing organisations, Science Europe. As a result, Portugal is now facing a political and administrative reduction of 50% in the number of the Research Units—namely scientific laboratories and university centers—funded by the Government, with severe future consequences.

It should be noted that this policy is being implemented without any public knowledge of the strategic guidelines for science in Portugal. What is more, so far, it has been pursued without the publications of any document to support such choices or to clarify its relationship with possible strategies of development.

The European research, science, and innovation policy will thus be headed by a hardcore neoliberal, ex-real estate manager, from now on. It remains to be seen to what extent the scientific development will be driven by narrow and shortsighted economic goals, neglecting the development of basic scientific knowledge. The latter, in addition to its intrinsic value, is the fundamental basis for sustained technological, economic, and social development.

This could lead to an eventual dismantling of the foundations of the scientific system and of its ability to accumulate knowledge. The subordination of such system to neoliberal principles could imply a degradation of the research and innovation capacity. Its effects could be felt for many years. If this goes on, it will lead to the collapse of the present but also of the future.

João Sebastião and Rosário Mauritti

Researchers at CIES-IUL, Centre for Research and Studies in Sociology, University Institute of Lisbon, Portugal.

Featured image credit: CC BY 2.0 by Photo YourSpace

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