Southern European scientists become activists as recession bites

A line of people in white coat queuing in front of Valencia’s train station is quite an unusual sight. Yet, this scene was not part of a movie rehearsal. Rather, it was reported in prime time news on Spanish television, on 19th December 2012. This action was part of a scientists’ protest taking place in 20 cities in Spain. This initiative included releasing balloons at Madrid’s Complutense University and using banners to block the traffic in Barcelona’s main streets. These examples reflect how scientists are increasingly deploying activists’ techniques to fight back the effects of the recession on research. This trend is particularly developed in Southern European countries, which are among the hardest hit by austerity.

The protest in Spain was called by the Open Letter for Science movement (Carta Abierta por la Ciencia). Since early 2012, this initiative has brought together scientific societies, unions, university rectors, and researchers’ associations, in an effort to save Spanish science from the estimated 40% budget cuts imposed since 2009. “We couldn’t keep our arms crossed while we saw our government eat our seed corn”, says Amaya Moro Martín, the astrophysicist at Madrid’s Centre for Astrobiology who initiated the movement. Moro explains that the movement is not just a reaction to the crisis. “We ask for more flexibility, efficiency and transparency, to make Spain’s research system more competitive,” she says, “the solution is not destroying all we have.”

By comparison, blogging and debate events are the protest tools preferred by Italian scientists. One of the most active collective of scientists is called ROARS (Return on academic research). It has been publishing a science policy web site since September 2011. With nearly three million visits, this portal has proven popular. The initiative was triggered by the university reform carried on by Silvio Berlusconi’s government in 2010. “We were tired of the picture of corruption in academia and low productivity of Italian research promoted by mainstream newspapers: a false picture, built on purpose to justify a punitive reform,” says Francesco Sylos Labini, a physicist at the National Research Center in Rome, and an editor of ROARS. As a means to provide concrete solutions to the Italian predicament, ROARS launched an academic journal about evaluation and research policies, in March 2013.

In parallel, scientists in Greece—the hardest hit among European countries—have been organised in the Association of Greek Researchers (AGR) since the early 90s. “The association then became a national interlocutor , when it introduced the notion of a cohesive tertiary research and education area”, says its current chairman, Loukas Dimitris, a physicist at the Institute of Nuclear and Particle Physics in Athens. AGR took part in rallies against salary cuts in September 2012. “Scientists have become more involved after the crisis, but unfortunately not more effective,” he says, “what prevails in Greece today is the tendency to privatise the entire public research system.” More recently, other movements have been organised. Such as the Initiative of non-appointed Faculty Members of Greek Universities representing the qualms of elected academics who, in the past three years, have failed to be appointed, such as Varvara Trachana.

The historic brain drain suffered by many Southern European countries is becoming another opportunity for scientific activism. It has taken the form of lobbying. For example, in 2008, young Portuguese researchers in the UK founded the association PARSUK (Portuguese Association of Researchers and Students in the UK). “We want to use knowledge gathered abroad to implement new approaches to research in Portugal,” says David Tomaz, president of PARSUK and an immunologist at Imperial College London, UK. PARSUK’s complaints made the Portuguese government scale back cuts to fellowships that pay for PhD studies in the UK. The experience of this association has triggered the creation of a set of others with similar objectives: the Society of Spanish Researchers in the United Kingdom (SRUK/CERU), created in June 2011, the Society of Spanish Researchers in the Federal Republic of Germany (CERFA), founded in June 2012, and the Association of Italian Scientists in the United Kingdom (AIS-UK) about to be established.

Scientists-activists are mostly unsatisfied with politicians’ response to their actions. For example, Moro says that “the [Spanish] government is ignoring all our requests.” Sylos Labini hopes his organisation has “opened a breach into a wall of commonplaces”. Several national governments do not feel compelled to invest in science in a context in which the European Union is pressing for reducing public spending, and is cutting its own research budget.

However, the unprecedented mobilisation of Southern European scientists may have forever changed their relationship with policy makers. The seed may be invisible now, but it will likely flourish in the future.

Featured image credit: FJI/Precarios

Go back to the Special Issue: Research Austerity

Michele Catanzaro

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2 thoughts on “Southern European scientists become activists as recession bites”

  1. This transformation is being helped by the extremely rapid development of the Internet, which has become a powerful vector for disseminating knowledge. Throughout the world, the number of connections leaped noticeably from 2002 to 2007. But this advance is even more significant in emerging countries. In 2002, just over 10 out of 100 people, globally, used the Internet. There are over 23 users per 100 today. And this proportion rose from 1.2 to 8 in the same period in Africa, from 2.8 to 16 in the Arab States, and from 8.6 to 28 in Latin America. “The rapid diffusion of Internet in the South is one of the most promising new trends of the Millennium,” says the report.

  2. Hello,

    I am a scientist myself (although making my move into Science Communication) and I have been in different protests in Madrid, where I live (I work at the National Center for Cancer Research).
    I go to such acts because I believe in a different economic model, based on innovation and research, as well as sustainability.
    However, I am afraid that some of people going to different demonstrations nowadays are more worried about their specific situation rather than a more global one… they wouldn’t have made a move if their jobs weren’t on risk (which is also fair, this is only an observation)
    Last, I believe we are in the middle of a turning point where BRIChs (Brasil, Russia, India and China) among other developing countries are taking over the main role in economic growth, with all its consequences. And unfortunately, when somebody is up, the other side of the balance is down… can we break it even??

    I commented more on the Spanish situacion in a post on my blog(in Spanish):