Portugal: science friendly despite relative research immaturity

In Portugal, science friendly policies continue in current times of severe financial restrictions. Indeed, public budgets were preferentially spared and re-directed to the essentials. And a more efficient spending has brought more money to the system than in previous years. The decision of Pedro Passos Coelho, the Portuguese Prime Minister, to create and chair a new advisory body: the National Council for Science and Technology, in 2012 brought another positive initiative to support science in Portugal.

Another major recent advance was the new governmental initiative to award the most competitive investigators with renewable 5-years positions at various seniority levels. Not surprisingly, there are now a number of internationally competitive young investigators, based in institutions across the country, which left behind hierarchical “old style” departmental structures. Instead, they offer centralised, high-quality facilities and services, and have adopted English as their working language.

There is still progress to be made in scientific human resources. The numbers of investigators, engineers and technicians are still far from the best in the country. Yet, for a small, peripheral European country with little tradition in research, it is remarkable that some institutions boast vibrant communities with large numbers of foreign students, post-docs and investigators. Besides, there is no gender-bias even at the top levels, and there is a dynamics of staff renewal that are still rare elsewhere in Europe. It is thus not surprising that 27 ERC grants were attributed to Portuguese labs over the last few years.

The creation of such an emerging vibrant research community is the result of two decades efforts to educate young Portuguese scientists. Initially, Portuguese scientists had to be educated abroad. But recently enough institutions and research groups were available to provide such an education at home. This generous spending of public funds through allocation of research fellowships with no obligation to return was matched by the initiative of private foundations. This resulted in some of the first 4-years PhD programs in Europe, following a model that, 20 years later, is seen as innovative for today.

Once trained abroad, young scientists could then return to new research institutions outside university departments. These incubated a new generation of internationally connected and competitive leaders.

In short, the system is consolidated, thanks to the established good practices in the distribution of public funds by the national funding agency (FCT). Funding award is subject to reviews by international expert panels. It is allocated through yearly calls in all scientific and technological domains, which are open for competitive grants and for PhD and post-doctoral fellowships. Meanwhile, structural funding of institutions is attributed in line with their respective ranking by performance.

One oddity of the Portuguese S&T system, however, is the role played by private foundations; namely the Gulbenkian Foundation, for decades and the Champalimaud Foundation, for the last few years. Thanks to the operative and strategic flexibility afforded to private organisations, their policies to adopt risky projects contributed to introduce innovative practices that were soon adopted by others. Their respective research institutes, which are today flagships for life sciences in Portugal, have made an important contribution to the flourishing of biomedical research in Portugal over the last 10 years.

Nevertheless, the main issues of the country’s research system are its weak points, owing to a relative immaturity and structural conditions in the country. For example, the presence of large, science-intensive corporations is scarce. And academic/research institutions absorb most of the PhDs. State Laboratories harbor a large number of tenured investigators, but contribute little high-quality S&T, while there are no dedicated “Research Universities”. Further, there is no career structure for research-supporting personnel in administration or in the management of facilities and laboratories. Besides, there are too few science-educated people in the productive sector, with leads to a corresponding deficit in innovation.

Surprisingly, public support to high-education continues—often considered a domain of pride for the country— irrespective of scientific performance. This optimism towards the nation’s research capabilities is a vote of confidence that Portuguese policy makers need to take into account to try and resolve the country’s research weaknesses, regardless of restrictions due to the recession.

António Coutinho

Member of the management committee of the Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciência and coordinator of the National Council for Science and Technology

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2 thoughts on “Portugal: science friendly despite relative research immaturity”

  1. This article seems to reflect a good situation of research in Portugal and a huge and positive effort of the Government to increase research investment.
    But, as one of the many foreign researchers that until recently worked with a 5 year contract and now is unemployed, I have to admit that I do not see where the author of the above-mentioned article sees the investments of the Government or even some trace of strategy for the future of research in Portugal.
    I subscribed for the contest for the FCT Investigador 5-year positions last year and I passed to the second step of evaluation (meaning I entered the almost 300 researchers from almost 1200 initial candidates) but even though I cannot be successful in the final phase as only 150 candidatures were accepted. The evaluation process and the final results left me very disappointed and and showed how superficial (and overwhelmingly burocratic) was everything and what a great lack of perspective and long-term strategy has Portugal in the field of research.

  2. Prof. A. Coutinho

    We, Portuguese, know your strong connections to the present political power. But there are limits of decency that should not be overcome – the present members of the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology are simply leading the Portuguese Institutions to absolute ruin, destroying everything that was working well and inventing anacronic systems that only favor the un-accountability of the players, uses in many instances pure economicistic factiors (e.g., giving more money to those that have captured more external financing – should not the money be distributed according to scientific quality, long-term strategic thinking of the Research/Scientific filed for the Country ? Just read, please, the recent document from the Council of the Portuguese Rectors ! And please stop publicizing the private and rich Institutions under your control – it is ridiculous and no longer barable. In fact, is a shame.