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Special issue on Research Activism – Print Edition

Welcome to this Special Issue of EuroScientist on: Research Activism!

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As waves of researchers’ protest are about to invade the streets of Paris, Rome and Madrid, among others, there is a clear sense of déjà vu in these white coats with large signs walking the avenues of European capitals.

Some of their claims are not so new either, but they take a special meaning in the recently reorganised environment created with the nomination of the new European Commission.

What is new, however, is that these protests on longer follow a logic of being centred around national territories. They have become supra-national and aim to target the central power in Brussels as much as national governments.

Find out all aspects of the latest protest movements in France, Spain, Italy and about the bigger picture at the EU level by reading our special issue below.

Get here a printed edition of this special issue on research activism.


Joining the dots: unprecedented levels of pan-European research activism

By Sabine Louët, EuroScientist editor.

So what is the fuss about?

Science funding angst: is rhetoric masking what is really at stake?

By Vanessa Schipani, science journalist, the Netherlands.

How to balance a European research ecosystem with its national parts

By Fiona Dunlevy, science journalist, France.


French scientists get on their bikes for research

By Fiona Dunlevy, science journalist, France.

Once upon a time, the tale of how french scientists lost their autonomy

By Alain Trautmann, CNRS researcher, Cochin Institute, Paris, France.


Repeated research protest on the street of Madrid

By Marta Espar, science journalist, Spain.

EuroScientist Interview: Pablo Echenique-Robba, Eurodeputy Podemos

By Sabine Louët, EuroScientist editor.


Italian scientists protest against budget cuts, crocodile tears included

By Sergio Pistoi, science journalist, Italy.

For the sake of Italian science and culture

By Francesco Sylos Labini, co-founder and editor at Return on Academic ReSearch (ROARS), Italy.


Portugal in a research maelstrom

By João Sebastião and Rosário Mauritti, researchers at CIES-IUL. University Institute of Lisbon, Portugal.


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Joining the dots: unprecedented level of pan-European research activism


Research activism in Europe is about to transcend borders. Forthcoming protests movements planned for around mid-October in France, Italy and Spain are not a coincidence. Scientists will rally their respective capitals—be it on their bike or on foot—as a result of unprecedented concerted planning. Up until recently, the scientists involved did not collaborate across borders to campaign for a change in their own working environment. Yet, they are no strangers to international collaboration, when it comes to their research projects. So what triggered this shift in attitude?

Several factors come into play. First, national research activism movements are increasingly relying on online communication tools to make their messages widely available. Thus, the multiplying effect of social media combined with the existence of expatriate communities of scientists within Europe—due to the brain drain from Southern and Eastern Europe—plays a part. As a result, activists have gained an international leverage never attained before. But, clearly these are not the only drivers.

The second aspect is that austerity policies have pushed those bearing their consequences—particularly scientists from Southern Europe—to react. As a result, researchers are taking their responsibilities, as citizens, to try and change their working conditions themselves.

Interestingly, the upcoming wave of grassroots protests by citizen scientists is reminiscent of the European Parliament election campaign, earlier this year. It gave rise to the emergence of citizen democracy movements, such as Podemos, among others, in Spain, which partly built its campaign on the need to support research and innovation.

It is ironical that it took so long for European scientists to overcome their own geographical short-sightedness. Only now do they realise that many of their concerns—albeit not all, as some issues remain country specific —are shared with their neighbours.

The irony of the situation does not stop here. Research activists themselves are now accusing both the European Commission and national governments of short-sightedness in their research and innovation policies.

This means that these activists no longer see national governments as the only target for their demands. This demonstrates a better understanding of the complexity that governs research and innovation in Europe. This also shows that they are hopeful of the potential role Brussels could play in whipping national governments into shape, and making them abide by their pledge to increase support for R&D at national level. Hence, the idea of a coordinated protest at pan-European level to gain support for the establishment of a more sustainable research ecosystem .

Pan-European dialogue is now in order to counter all types of short-sightedness. Responding to such need, a timely new forum, called the Homo scientificus europaeus blog will be launched next week. It has been initiated by researchers’ communities from across Europe—North and South—and is hosted by the EuroScientist. Its objective is to facilitate debates and discussions going beyond the traditional rhetoric and to help bring novel solutions for research and innovation in Europe to the attention of policy makers. It could become the link that helps join the dots of the multivariable European research puzzle.

Featured image credit: CC BY-SA 2.0 by Matteo Recagni

Sabine Louët, editor EuroScientist


Science funding angst: is rhetoric masking what is really at stake?

research activism

With all arrows pointing to the need for economic growth, many have begun to wonder how changes in the new European Commission will affect the balance between basic and applied research. But scholars in Science and Technology Studies (STS)— a field that investigates the relationships between scientific knowledge, technological systems and society— say that this linguistic dichotomy of ‘basic’ versus ‘applied’ research masks the real issues at stake.

The limits of language

The dichotomy between basic and applied research has created a rift between scientists and policy makers. “Terms like ‘basic’ and ‘applied’ have become the only vocabulary with which we can imagine science,” says Brian Wynne, a professor of STS at the University of Lancaster in the UK. In reality “it’s nearly impossible to take any particular body of research and say what percentage is basic and what part is applied.”

Research on thermodynamics in the XIXth century, for example, was integrated with the aim to develop the steam engine, says Wynne. As a result basic scientific understanding advanced as a product of applied testing. Today, “people talk about the ‘ecosystem’ for innovation,” adds Jack Stilgoe, a lecturer of STS at University College London in the UK, “because the most innovative science often blurs the line between basic and applied.”

The term ‘innovation’ is also vastly misconstrued notes Harro van Lente, a professor of STS at Maastricht University in the Netherlands. He has found that many people equate ‘innovation’ with ‘invention’ because they believe inevitably innovation occurs when an idea is commercialised in a quick, linear fashion. But “it often takes decades to figure out how an idea can be put to good use, the bicycle being a good example,” he says. “It took the bicycle decades to evolve before it was thought of as a means of transportation.”

Time is money

This brings up another issue which cannot be encompassed by the basic versus applied dichotomy: the trend in science policy to speed up innovation. “Science policy is built upon a lot of unhelpful myths, like the idea that science and innovation will lead to short-term economic growth,” says Stilgoe. “But the evidence is that science and innovation contribute to long-term economic productivity.”

However, this “category mistake” is not entirely the fault of policymakers, as “the scientific community are complicit in this way of thinking,” he adds. “Scientists say, ‘if you fund science, science will deliver economic growth,’ even if they know that this growth may well take decades to manifest.” In other words, while the scientific community’s worry about the status of ‘basic’ research is based on rhetoric in policy, policymakers have also fallen prey to rhetoric that scientists themselves use.

To be fair the issue of long- versus short-term economic growth has been addressed, at least in theory, by Horizon 2020, the European Commission’s latest funding scheme. Unlike its predecessors, Horizon 2020 has thematic areas that directly recognise the European Union’s long-term Grand Challenges, such as climate change, aging populations, food safety and energy supply. However, the mission letter to Carlos Moedas, the new Commissioner for research, science and innovation, sent by EC president, Jean-Claude Juncker, suggests old myths may still linger in the minds of policymakers. There, Juncker asks Moedas to focus more on applied research and contribute to jobs and growth by “mobilising innovation financial instruments available under Horizon 2020.”

Power to the people

What then is the solution? Stilgoe, Wynne and van Lente all agree policy debates need to be more informed, potentially by giving the public a bigger voice. “With science becoming more expert-oriented, it’s too easy for rhetoric to take hold as truth,” says Wynne. “Public involvement, or at least a wider range of stakeholders, might expose the complexity of these issues.”

This leads to the question of who defines what’s best for society, says Wynne, if it’s not the public themselves. How societal needs are conceptualised is intimately linked with which groups, in science and society, are marginalised by funding schemes. For example “we know that innovation in pharmaceuticals is massively skewed towards rich markets,” says Stilgoe. “There are a number of neglected diseases that simply don’t get research funding.” It’s these sorts of problems that need addressing, he adds, rather than debates over funding for basic versus applied science.

Intellectual freedom

Wynne and van Lente also say the scientific community’s fear of losing funding for ‘basic’ research might actually translate to a fear of losing what they believe to be a fundamental scientific right: intellectual freedom. However, van Lente argues the freedom and resources to take intellectual risks is not a fundamental scientific right. Rather, it is tied to periods of economic prosperity, as experienced after the second World War.

On the other hand not giving researchers intellectual freedom may encroach upon what many believe is a core tenet of science: objectivity. In grant proposals scientists are ironically “expected to describe the future impact of the experiment they’re conducting,” says Wynne. But “expecting them to be able to map out this impact suggests they should already know the results of their experiment.” An exemplar of how intellectual freedom translates to solutions for society is the field of paleoecology. Once thought of as an obscure ‘basic’ discipline, “knowing about past ecosystems is now fundamental to our understanding of climate change,” says van Lente.

Wynne points to a similar problem of logic that surrounds thinking about innovation in policymaking. “To talk about being desperate to produce innovation for economic growth, while also requiring scientists to map out the future impacts of their research doesn’t make much sense when you stop to think about it,” he says. “Innovation is supposed to be about novelty. If you’re going to produce something new, by definition, you can’t plan or predict it.”

Featured image credit: CC BY-NC 2.0 by Origami Madness

Vanessa Schipani

Vanessa is a science journalist based in Utrecht, the Netherlands.


How to balance a European research ecosystem with its national parts


Researchers across France, Spain and Italy are orchestrating a wave of national protests, which will culminate on the 17th and 18th October 2014 in their respective capitals. Their objective is to highlight how Europe’s knowledge economy is being undermined by a lack of investment in research, amongst other factors. European national research systems are struggling; that much is beyond doubt. The question is how to balance national versus EU research support and how the EU can drive rehabilitation of national research systems. Another question is whether the increased focus on excellence-based funding is really necessary. This debate is now fully open.

National research budgets squeezed

In many southern European countries, national funding for research has declined in real terms. Or it has failed to keep pace with increasing salary and infrastructure costs. This means that researchers struggle to finance their research costs. “Universities basically recruit without thinking how the person will get funding to pursue the research portfolio,” says Lynn Kamerlin, associate professor of cell and molecular biology at Uppsala University, Sweden and spokesperson for the Young Academy of Europe, an association for elite researchers. “This creates a whole generation of disenfranchised young scientists.”

In 2002, the European Union agreed to increase spending on R&D to meet a regional target of 3% of GDP by 2010, of which 1% was to be invested in public research. This, by and large, has not been achieved. As a result, it raises the question of whether the target was realistic in the first place. A 2003 OECD report warned that to achieve these targets would take major social and economic reforms to restructure industry, improve public research governance and to meet requirements for a highly skilled workforce.

Ultimately, the responsibility for research funding lies with Member States. “Many governments in the EU talk the talk,” says Katrien Maes, chief policy officer at the League of European Research Universities (LERU), “but if you look at the budget and the actual policies in place, it’s not comprehensive, it’s not wholehearted investment.

Pragmatic solutions

So what can the EU do to influence national governments to invest more wisely in their national research systems? “There is a monitoring mechanism tied to national roadmaps and if Member States don’t adhere to this, the European Commission can call for national corrective measures,” says Maes.

In fact, the fledgling European Research Area (ERA) is giving the EU more powers to rebuke countries who need to invest more in research. This complements two other levers the EU has for influencing national budgets. The European Semester screens national budgets of all Member States and the Maastrict procedure is applied to countries whose budget deficit exceeds 3% of GDP. These levers allow the EU to make strong recommendations on national budgets to ensure sound economic policy – including adequate investment in research.

Some believe that there are ways of categorising national spending on research that could be made attractive to governments. “They [the EC] should make clear that research is an investment,” says Wolfgang Eppenschwandtner, executive coordinator of the pan-European research activism group Initiative for Science in Europe (ISE). He suggests: “spending on research should be exempt from the calculation of government budget deficits.” In addition, research capacity could also be boosted using “regional structural funds,” adds Eppenschwandtner.

Lingering recession

The current situation is linked to the ongoing global recession. Many countries including Spain and Portugal, poured significant investment into research in the early 2000’s, but “unfavourable macro‑economic conditions have [since] directly affected research and innovation in most countries,” says Dominique Guellec, economist and senior analyst in the OECD Science and Technology Directorate in Paris, France. Countries hit by austerity do, however, “try to protect the most excellent and useful corner of [their] public research system,” notes Guellec.

In reality, Southern European researchers now experience the same challenges that their Central and Eastern European peers have always faced, according to Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, president of the European Research Council (ERC), based in Brussels, Belgium. The difference is that Southern European researchers had a taste of investment that has now disappeared. “This resulted in a rapid development of a new generation of researchers,” says Bourguignon, “They now feel that the perspectives they had for their professional development have disappeared.”

Adequate national funding irreplaceable

Today, the ways research funding is being allocated is increasingly challenged by scientists themselves; be it from national agencies or from the well-oiled pan-European funding mechanism such as the Horizon 2020 scheme or ERC grants. For instance, the scope of ERC funding can be restrictive. “The ERC [grant] is an excellence grant for top scientists in Europe,” Kamerlin explains. Bourguignon concedes that the ERC supports “ambitious projects.” This means that “such funding must be worldwide competitive,” he says, stressing however “it is not meant as a substitute for national funding, and cannot replace it.”

Scientists across Europe increasingly fear that the concentration of both national and EU funds into excellence-based funding programmes could lead to a catch 22 situation for an entire generation of researchers. These researchers feel may not be able to achieve excellence, because they were never given a chance, due to the lack of investment in their national research systems.

Exellence-driven funding mechanisms are not the only ones under scrutiny. Many scientists also complain that the current priority-driven model of funding compromises researcher autonomy . For example, this is the case for calls in Horizon 2020 designed to tackle society’s challenges, including health, ageing and global warming.

Scientists also fear that such an approach threatens blue skies research that may not show its value for years or even decades. Some are unapologetically pragmatic in this aspect. “There are so many people who are working on so many issues that you cannot fund everybody at the same time,” says the OECD’s Guellec. He adds: “It doesn’t seem shocking to me that when society or government pays, people do it for having some end in mind.”

Southern European researchers hope that their united show of protest over the coming weeks will serve as a wakeup call both for their national governments and for the EU. The long term stakes are high for everyone, not just researchers, should Europe loses its global position as a knowledge hothouse. Guellec concludes: “we can’t really imagine a dynamic economy without research. That can’t be.”

Featured image credit: CC BY 2.0 by Glyn Lowe

Fiona Dunlevy

Fiona is a science journalist based in Cannes, France.


French scientists get on their bikes for research

Credit Sciences en Marche

research activism

French research is in trouble. A protest movement has arisen from the ranks of research centres and universities to protest against what French scientists consider a progressive assault on research funding, jobs and autonomy by successive French administrations. Research activists from Montpellier have devised a very French response to this problem: marching out on the street—albeit this time with a twist. From the 27th September 2014, the grassroots movement Sciences en Marche, will see researchers march on Paris. They are planning to arrive in the French capital on 18th October, having bicycled in stages from labs all over France.

This follows prior expressions of unrest among the French research community. In June 2014, an extraordinary general meeting of CNRS—the largest state‑funded research organisation in France—warned of a system in serious crisis. But that was not the only issue. The previous government’s initiative to provide greater operational and financial autonomy to the country’s universities has had some serious repercussions—including, ironically, the loss of autonomy of scientists. Previously, another protest arose among the ranks of the higher education system. They reacted to government plans, announced as far back as 2012, to merge existing universities into mega-universities, which they considered an ill-advised attempt to raise the ranking of French universities on the global stage.

For every problem, a solution

The Sciences en Marche protesters have three demands for the government. First, they request that funding be increased. Second, they want more stable science jobs. And third, they ask for a higher recognition for PhDs on the job market. Hollande’s government has boasted of a ring-fenced science budget. But “if you keep the funding level constant regardless of inflation, the small fraction left for research after paying salaries is dwindling,” explains Patrick Lemaire, principal investigator in developmental biology at the CNRS, Montpellier, and spokesperson for Sciences en Marche.

Researchers say that funding needs to increase, so that only 70% of the budget is spent on salaries, down from the current spend of 90%. This, says Lemaire, would give labs “the means to carry out science, which they can’t at the time being.” This is linked to a general restructuring of how research is funded in France, according to some experts. Originally, most funding came from the state, who “paid laboratories almost systematically from year to year,” explains Renaud Debailley, lecturer in sociology at the University of Paris, Sorbonne, and an expert in the sociology of science. In recent years, there has been a shift towards competitive project-based funding, with “funding attributed by researcher performance,” he notes.


Evaluation shake-up

A related sore point for researchers is evaluation of their projects, which used to be performed internally by their institutions. Since 2007, evaluation has been centralised under the umbrella of a national evaluation agency AERE—soon to be renamed the high council for research and higher education evaluation (HCERES). “What made the most noise,” says Debailley “is using quantitative indicators to evaluate teams and individuals. This has led to strong mobilisation on whether we can trust metrics to measure publications or the number of students.”

As a result, researchers “feel dispossessed by these mechanisms,” Debailley points out, adding: “They no longer have the impression that scientists determine their own priorities. The state has more leeway to impose direction and funding is just a lever for directing the policies of research and innovation.”

Stable research positions

Recruitment is also in crisis.

In the CNRS alone, approximately 800 jobs have been cut between 2002 and 2009. Sciences en Marche is calling for “an ambitious multiannual plan for statutory job creation at all levels of research and higher education.” This, they argue, could be paid for by a rethink of the existing research tax credit system, the Crédit Impôt Recherche (CIR). This tax relief was originally meant to entice companies into R&D and cost France about €6 billion last year. Experts estimate that just 1% of that sum would fund 1,000 jobs in higher education and research.

But it seems that legislators don’t want to hear researchers’ proposals on reducing CIR costs to boost public research funding. In recent discussions with researchers, Geneviève Fioraso, secretary of state for higher education and research stressed the importance of the CIR in encouraging private sector research and reiterated the government’s stance that the CIR cannot be reworked to supplement public research funding. But as Lemaire explains “nobody really knows how much these companies [availing of the CIR] actually spend on research. Part of this money could be reallocated to public research.”

Money isn’t the only solution in creating a stable career path, warns Barend van der Meulen, head of science system assessment at the Rathenau Institute, the Netherlands, and an expert in science policy. “There are lots of positions for young researchers but not much for fixed staff. The competition between young researchers is very fierce for the next step,” says van der Meulen, “it cannot simply be solved by more money. It has to be solved in a structural way.”


According to the CNRS, French PhD holders are 3 times more likely to be unemployed than in comparable European countries. This, researchers say, is due to the unique double system of higher education system in France. The elite system of grandes écoles was established after the revolution as a counterpart to universities, which were then considered proxies of the Catholic church. Sciences en Marche say that steps need to be taken for better recognition of the PhD degree in the public and private sectors. “PhDs are not considered elite by French society,” says Lemaire, “so if PhD graduates don’t get jobs in academia, they have a hard time finding jobs in the private sector or in the higher levels of the administration.”

University researchers are “clearly constructed as second-class citizens because of the double system with the grande écoles,” says Michèle Lamont, a French‑Canadian professor of sociology at Harvard, USA, and the author of a book entitled How Professors Think. This, she says forces scientists to try to “sensitise the government about their work conditions.”

Not a new problem

This latest skirmish with the government is giving French scientists a sense of déjà vu. This is just the latest battle in a decade-long running war on science and research by scientists against the initiatives of successive governments. Alain Trautmann, principal investigator and director of immunology and hematology research at the CNRS, Institut Cochlin, Paris, who led the protest movement Sauvons la Recherche (Save Research) in 2004 and 2005, says that the problems are “the same, if not more serious than in 2004.” (See his own account in the EuroScientist).

According to Trautmann, the loss of researcher autonomy is crucial. “Part of their freedom came from the fact that [laboratories] had basic funding,” says Trautmann, “This allowed them to take risks.” Today’s project-based funding model is pushing researchers into following “programmes decided by the Ministry of Research,” he adds. “One day it’s one research subject, two years later a different one. No serious researcher wants to change like that every two years.”

Lamont agrees, saying: “Researchers feel they’re not being given the means to do research or the authority to be evaluators of the quality of research. They’re always fighting to push back political interference.” She believes this means that “France is quickly losing speed compared to other countries.”


Cultural specificities

This pushback against attempts by the French state to drive the research agenda may have a deeper origin. Guy Groux, senior researcher at the Centre of Political Research, Sciences Po, Paris, and author of a book called La Grève (the Strike) explains that “When we link research with economic growth, we have to carry out applied research that leads to patents. But the French still have an attachment to basic research and continue to distrust business.” According to Groux, the government is happy to invest in science as long as the economic returns are there. But for some researchers, he says, this “touches the neutrality of research. The question is: should research remain neutral in relation to the social and economic systems?”

So if the problems facing researchers are not new, what has pushed them into action this time? Due to the various reforms “people have just lived through ten difficult years and they’re worn out,” says Trautmann, “they can’t stand it anymore.” The level of dissatisfaction is especially acute since the socialist Hollande government came to power two years ago. “The policies have not really changed from one government to another,” says Debailley, “the questions of [job] precarity and autonomy are still the order of the day.” According to Lemaire, the Sciences en Marche movement was born from this disappointment. “When Sarkozy was in power, people trusted that when the socialists came there would be a change,” says Lemaire, “but there hasn’t been a change.”

On your bike

The organisers of Sciences en Marche have deliberately veered away from the more traditional style of explosive French street protests. “The aim is to get the attention and support of the public. It will be a very positive protest,” says Lemaire. Throughout their cycle to Paris, the researchers will stop at towns along the way to engage with the public at local popular science events under the umbrella of national celebrations called the Fête de la Science “to say this is our job, this is what we’re doing, and this is what we’re useful for.”

For Groux, the success of such a movement depends on noise. “To make noise,” says Groux “the unions need to mobilise.” And mobilise they have; Sciences en Marche now counts the major science trade unions in France amongst their supporters, adding mettle to the movement. This initiative “could be a complete flop, which would be very sad,” says Lemaire, “or it could be a resounding success.” Whatever the outcome, this will be a pivotal battle in the war to save French research from relegation on the world stage.

Featured image credit: Sciences en Marche

Go back to the Special Issue: Research Activism

Fiona Dunlevy

Fiona is a freelance science journalist, based in Cannes, France.


Once upon a time, the tale of how the French scientists lost their autonomy

Credit Alain Trautmann

Protests concerning the French government’s policy on public research and higher education (PRHE) has arisen in France during the course of 2014. Several researchers’ movements have emerged in parallel. The first, back in 2013, stems from people working in higher education opposing the fusion of existing institutions into mega-universities, headed by professional managers’ teams,. The second, in June 2014, whereby tens of thousands of scientists signed a petition against low levels of recruitment within the ranks of the national scientific research agency CNRS. And the third, Sciences en Marche (Science in Motion) originates from Montpellier University, is about to start on 27th September 2014. Interestingly, these protests are taking place five and ten years, respectively, after the previous research activism movements of 2004 and 2009.

So why such protest? After all, the global national effort for R&D has been globally stable for the last 10 years. However, behind this apparent stability, there have been major changes in the reality of the public research and higher education sector, in particular, in relation to its organisation. As a result, it has been affecting the daily life of scientist in France. Besides, the dual mainstream universities versus elite schools system (grandes écoles, who are not focused on research) is such that French PhDs are not as valued in their own country as they would be in foreign laboratories.

The change in PRHE policy stems from a series of reforms pursued by French President François Hollande and research minister Geneviève Fioraso—following in the wake of reforms initiated by Nicolas Sarkozy, and his research minister Valérie Pécresse. They view their policy as an improvement of the French system over the last ten years that need to be continued further. However, for a vast majority of scientists based in laboratories or teaching at universities, working conditions have become a nightmare.

It is striking that a number of notions that have been at the source of these changes are becoming a goal on their own. These include the implementation of the Lisbon treaty, the knowledge economy, the so-called new public management where universities have gained greater operational and financial autonomy, as well as the obsession for evaluation, excellence and ranking.

Incidentally, all of these notions have been at work in all European countries as well. Combined with the recessionary context, austerity and the TINA—there is no alternative—attitude, they have had variable consequences across Europe. In Southern European countries, including in Greece, Portugal, Spain, Italy, the result has been a disaster. By contrast, in Germany and Northern European countries, in general, research effort has been maintained. France lies somewhere between these two scenarios.

Sciences en Marche

Recruitment reduction under scrutiny

Resistance to mega-universities

The 2004 and 2009 protests

From knowledge economy to new public management

Recent shifts in organisation

Absurd policy

Loss of research autonomy

Irreconcilable differences

Sciences en Marche

The most imminent researchers’ movement, called Sciences en Marche (Sciences in Motion), is about to start, on 27th September 2014. It is a symbolic cycling rally bringing scientists from all regions towards Paris, that they expect to reach on 18th October 2014. This initiative, covered in the EuroScientist, is designed to raise French people’s awareness of scientists’ plea along the way by asking them to provide accommodation to participating scientists and by getting participants engage in popular science events as part of national science celebrations dubbed the Science en Fête, scheduled during the same period of time .

This initiative, launched in June 2014, was started by CNRS scientists working at Montpellier University and has since gained nationwide dimension. As part of their demands, the movement has adopted a three-pronged approach. First, they request the establishment of an ambitious multi-annual plan for recruitment, at all level or PRHE. Second, they want an increase in the baseline budget allocated to laboratories and universities. Finally, they also demand that PhDs gain better recognition within the French system, in order to facilitate the employment of researchers, as well as the wider adaption of scientific culture in companies and civil service.

Recruitment reduction under scrutiny

A second research activism initiative, in a similar vein, came from researchers at CNRS. It was triggered by a report of the CNRS scientific advisory board underlining that the recruitment of young scientists in all parts of public research and higher education system was getting dangerously low. More importantly, researchers started to realise that there was a major contrast between the official positions—which depicts research as a priority, with ring-fenced budgets—and the reality.

In fact, the number of opened positions has been in constant decline in the past few years. The total number of positions opened by CNRS for researchers and engineers dropped from 982 in 2009 to 684 in 2013. On the ground, young scientists tend to leave science after their PhD, or even give up their career in science. As a result, the international position of France in research is moving back, from the 7th rank twenty years ago, to the 15th rank today, according to the OECD ranking.

The publication of this CNRS report resulted in an exceptional meeting of the 1,200 members of the Comité National—a structure in charge of evaluating the activity of CNRS/university laboratories and of recruiting researchers for the CNRS—held on the 11th June 2014. It was quickly followed by a petition, which received 16,000 signatures in a few weeks, asking for a multiannual recruitment plan for scientists. The government was also asked to announce the number of permanent positions were they were planning to create in the next three to five years. The idea was to provide scientists some visibility over the actual possibilities of working in PRHE in the coming years.

Resistance to mega-universities

Prior to Sciences and Marche and the CNRS movement, another protest was initiated in May 2014. People working in higher education complained against the consolidation in the university sector, as the government plans to create mega-universities, headed by professional managers’ teams—as opposed to academics traditionally. Academics fear that the extensive power granted to the top, would reduce the ability of for people working in universities to express their choices. The movement denounces the research policy of François Hollande’s then research and higher education minister Geneviève Fioraso, who is now State secretary in the same area. They accused such policy of being absolutely identical to that of Valérie Précresse, who was in that position under Nicolas Sarkozy.

They also blame the Socialist Party for disregarding its previous criticisms against the Pécresse-Sarkozy policy. Just before the formation of the government headed by Prime Minister Emmanuel Valls, in May 2014, a petition was launched asking for a change in PRHE policy, and therefore a change of minister. But Fioraso remained in charge of research, albeit with a lower position as state secretary instead of minister, in two successive government changes, which happened in May and August 2014.

People working in PRHE are either angry or depressed because Hollande reneged on his promises for research and higher education and is pursuing the policy applied by Sarkozy instead.

The 2004 and 2009 protests

Let’s examine how the latest protests compare with that of 2004 and 2009. In 2003, the then president Jacques Chirac and his government wanted to impose severe cuts in the PRHE budget. It was part of a general drive to reduce public expenses. At the time, public research was considered as a domain where strong protests never take place. This was a mistake: these budget cuts and reduction of permanent positions led to the creation of research activism movement, Sauvons la Recherche (SLR), in January 2004, an informal movement of which I was the spokesman. SLR had a strong and popular action, and has probably contributed to the collapse of the majority at the regional elections in March 2004.

In the days following this defeat, the government accepted to cancel all the PRHE budget cuts and opened more than 1,000 supplementary permanent positions in PRHE. This movement was essentially a movement of researchers, mainly from CNRS.

During the 2009 movement, the involvement of researchers was weaker. It was initiated by university professors and associate professors from universities all over the country. They opposed with important changes in their status. In a nutshell, the proposed changes resulted in considering research as a reward and teaching as a punishment. Meanwhile, the reform was accompanied by downgrading of the quality of training for high schools professors. All these changes were accompanied by anti-PRHE provocations by president Sarkozy, and by his ministers. They claimed that the changes were to improve the efficiency of the system. But research activists clearly saw through this smoakescreen, as the obvious reasons were to allow budget cuts, and to better control PRHE actors.

From knowledge economy to new public management

When examined closer, the basic reasons of these three protests were quite similar. In 2000, the Lisbon treaty pushed the idea that Europe had to promote the knowledge economy. To this end, each country was given a target of 3% of its GNP to be spent on research and development—including both public and corporate investment by 2010.

Fourteen years later, we have to realise what the knowledge economy really means: that all major aspects of knowledge should be justified and controlled by the economy. The mantra says: production of knowledge through research should only be financed if its potential impact for economy can be foreseen beforehand. Transmission of knowledge in higher education should depend on a so-called knowledge market. This means a strong development of private universities, at the expense of public universities. Note that in a country like Japan, the shift is complete: public universities no longer exist.

In addition, programs in public universities should now be influenced by corporate demands. And the model of corporate management is systematically extended to universities—dubbed new public management. Thus, the Lisbon treaty has been the signal for deep changes in the organisation of PRHE, in France as well as in the other European countries.

However, the European suggestion of largely increasing the national budgets for PRHE has been totally ignored in most countries. In France, the global public and corporate R&D investment was maintained around 2.2% of GNP, from 2000 to 2012. The investment for public research—excluding military, nuclear or aerospatial budgets—is at present at 0.7% of GNP in France. This compares with 1 % in Germany and 1.1 % in Sweden. The latter also boasts a 3.4% of GNP investment in both public and corporate sectors, which is 50% higher than in France.

Recent shifts in organisation

Since 2000, and in particular since 2005, there has been a series of changes in the organisation of PRHE in France. The major steps are the creation in 2005 of the national research agency ANR (Agence Nationale de la Recherche). Its role is to fund research, by allowing a better government control of the very specific and narrow research fields deserving national grants. The creation in 2007 of a national evaluation agency AERES came in addition to the existing evaluation systems. Again, this was aimed at better centralised controlling of French research activity.

In addition, changes in the organisation of universities gave an excessive power to their presidents in 2007, and to the presidents of the mega-universities formed by the fusion of several universities in 2013-2014. These series of fusions aimed to increase centralisation of power, in the logic of the new public management approach. Ultimately, the move was triggered by the absurd hope that mega-universities would get higher in the Shanghai ranking of world universities, even if the reality of their functioning was by no means improved. The university fusion programme was also designed as a cost cutting exercise. But what really happened so far has been a cost increase due the creation of new superstructures added on top of the existing ones. As a result, there are more administrative employees for the same number of professors, engineers and technicians; a reality reminiscent of the tale of the ant and the lion.

Absurd policy

A majority of actors of in the field fail to see any logic in this avalanche of reforms. The incessant addition of structural layers results in what is referred to as a millefeuille structure; based on the famous eponymous French delicacy, a cream and puff pastry cake with multiple strata. In fact, there is a logic in all of this: these changes progressively lead to the complete loss of autonomy of scientists. Researchers have less and less possibility of performing investigator-driven research.

In order to get money for their research, scientists have to fit in the ever-changing, very narrow and short-term research programs decided by the Ministry of Research. For instance, today, one can no longer get a grant for trying to understand unknown aspects of the functioning of the brain. You have to work on a neurological disease. But not any type. One would have thought that Parkinson’s or multiple sclerosis could attract funding. But that’s not the case only Alzheimer’s research is eligible.

This sort of absurd decision that kills creativity is a monstrous child born from the union of liberalism—whereby everything, including research, has to be profitable—and French Jacobinism—as everything has to be centralised, and decided by the government, its administration and its experts and/or lobbies.

Loss of research autonomy

In the wake of the Lisbon treaty, policies developed on a large scale by the Sarkozy-Pécresse tandem—and now pursued by the Hollande-Fioraso team—reforms of the PRHE aim at eliminating what they see as one key defect of the system: its autonomy.

Everybody agrees that CNRS has been and still is a successful organisation. Part of its success is that it has been very attractive to European researchers. In the past years, 30% of the researchers getting a CNRS position were not French, and many of those were from other European countries. A reason for its attractiveness was the freedom for research. Some years ago, a good lab could get a large fraction of its money from a funding given on a regular basis by CNRS; the amount was re-evaluated every 4 years. This gave researchers a real autonomy.

This autonomy has been considered as a serious problem by Sarkozy and Hollande, who seem to ignore that this autonomy is a condition for creativity. Thus, autonomy has been fought in many ways: less and less funding is provided on a recurrent basis, on an annual basis and most of the grants are now allocated to short-term projects. Indeed, any scientists from the most junior to Nobel laureates still have to prove to the experts at the Ministry that their next project is relevant to the current research priorities.

In addition, the system of evaluation and control of the research activity has become overwhelmingly heavy. There have been penalties imposed by AERES for those who did not publish in high-impact journal every year. As a result, this approach has been a way of reducing the autonomy of researchers and the likelihood that they will focus on risky topics. In addition, the explosion of job insecurity—as the number of researchers in a precarious position has increased in line with the number of short term contracts awarded. Researcher have been applying to such contracts in the hope of, one day, having a permanent position.

Irreconcilable differences

Today, we are faced with two opposing positions. On the one hand, the liberal vision of the knowledge economy, for which the autonomy of researchers is a problem, and job insecurity a solution. On the other hand, the vision of those who claim that knowledge is not merchandise, autonomy is essential for creativity, and the long time necessary for ambitious research is not compatible with short term, precarious type of contracts and employment.

We still ignore how far the 2014 protest will go.

Many people working in PRHE are exhausted, disgusted, and think of leaving research. They often say that they started doing research because they dreamt of having the freedom necessary for exploring new routes. Others wanted to find the key to mysteries, to work in teams with colleagues. None of them knew that doing research now means being under constant pressure, having to adapt to ever-changing reforms, structures and programs, spending less time doing research than filling forms, writing grant applications, preparing the new evaluation or being asked to evaluate colleagues.

French public life has its own ever changing climate. It has traditionally constituted of periods of calm—almost of depression—followed by periods of anger and protest. For scientists, protest arises when working conditions become too difficult, and when the sentiment of the absurdity of the situation becomes too strong. We are currently in a depressed period. However, the government appears so deaf to reasonable criticisms and proposals for change from the research and higher education community that such apathy could soon trigger some explosive response.

Alain Trautmann

CNRS researcher in immunology, Cochin Institute, Paris

Featured image credit: Louise Oligny


Repeated research protest on the street of Madrid

Credit: Ciencia para el pueblo

Doing science in Spain is like crying. This well-known quote from one of the most famous Spanish scientist, Nobel laureate Santiago Ramón Cajal, seems more pertinent today than ever. For that reason, Spanish scientists took to the streets of Madrid on 26th September 2014, in a protest dubbed the Red Tide for Science—Marea Roja por la Ciencia. These protests reflect the sense of hopelessness, which pervades research centres and universities around the country, as scientists are leaving in droves. Another demonstration is scheduled in Madrid on the 17th October 2014 to coinciding with the arrival in Paris of the French movement Science en Marche. and the protest in Rome, Per la Scienza, Per la cultura the next day.

In the most recent demonstration, protestors were dressed in red T-shirts white coats and held big placards aimed at the government saying “there is no future without Science” or “Spain is not a country for scientists.” The main actors included researchers of all ages and from very diverse institutions such as universities, public and private research centres, trade unions and scientific societies. In fact, this series of protests is backed by several activists groups of researchers including Investignación Digna, along with the Federation of Young Investigators (FJIP), Science for the People (Ciencia para el pueblo), Asemblea General de Ciencia, and the two major trade unions, CCOO and UGT, among others.

Unified voice

The researchers’ priorities are clear. “Foremost, we need urgent measures to stop and reverse the brain drain, including the abolition of current restrictions on hiring in public research centres and universities, the adoption on an anti-cyclical investment policy, a commitment to funding stability and strong support for basic research,” says Investignación Digna’s spokesperson Amaya Moro-Martín, who is currently doing research on extra-solar planetary systems at the Space Telescope Science Institute, in Baltimore, Maryland , USA. But she harbours the hope of, one day, going back to Spain.

All protestors advocate that R&D is key to achieving a healthy productive model and that public investment attracts private funding. “Without sustained R&D investment we will not achieve economic growth and generate employment,” says Capitolina Díaz, president of the Association of Women Researcher and Technologists (AMIT) and a senior lecturer in sociology at the University of Valencia, Spain. She believes that this is what this science researcher’s movement, made up of researchers of all ages with different ideologies and political affiliations, tries to demonstrate.

Chopped budget

In the past 5 years, the Spanish public investment in R&D has fallen by nearly 40%. To reverse the damage done, scientists repeatedly demand that research spending be brought back to the 2009 level of 0.6% of GDP – the average in Europe and fight against the dismantling of the national R&D system.

However, the 2014 public investment increase was only of 3.6% according to a 2014 report by COSCE. “Not only is budget [sparse], but credits are also rarely given out,” says José Molero, senior lecturer in applied economics at the Complutense University of Madrid and one of the authors of this report. “In 2011 and 2012, for example, 40% of the credit money included in the public budget was not allocated, mainly because research centres and companies could not meet the terms, such as high interest rates, among others,” Molero notes.

The draft state budget for 2015 announced this week by the ministry of Finance foresees a global increase of 4,24%, but the majority of this increase (64.3%) will go for military research and the total amount of the non-financial budget for civil R&D will decrease 7 Millions, a 0.29%, according to the first analysis reported by COSCE last Thursday. Molero believes that “we need at least six years of a sustained two digit increase to get back to the 2009 position.” Carlos Andradas, president of the COSCE (Spanish Confederation of Scientific Societies), said during the presentation of this 2015 report that “this is a very disappointing budget project, taking into account that it has been presented as the one that represent our way out of the economic crisis”.

Human cost

Not only have research budgets been cut, but the brain drain is perceived as a waste of the money already invested in educating Spanish scientists, which is not benefiting the country. “They [the Spanish government] help us to get a grant to move abroad but then it is really difficult to go back and get a contract in research,” laments Salvador Macip , a Spanish medicine graduate from the University of Barcelona, who is senior lecturer in Biochemistry and cancer research expert at the University of Leicester, UK, since 2008. He adds: “all the money invested in my training is wasted and my production as a scientist stays abroad.”

The crux of the matter is that there is little career prospect for Spanish scientists wishing to return home, let alone for those still in the country. “We reached our first goal: the last reform of the Spanish Science Law [of 2011] foresees that all training researchers should have a contract,” explains Elena Capel, the spokesperson for the Federation of Young Investigators, “but, in reality, with a replacement rate lower than 10% and the drastic cuts that most research projects endure, having a career in Spain is almost impossible,” says Capel, who is a post-doctoral researcher at the Institut Necker Enfants Malades in Paris, France. “It is not mobility any more, it is emigration,” adds Capel.

Political apathy

Another key issue is that science is nowhere to be seen in the political, economic or social agenda. And the new political movements, such as the new citizen political party Podemos, are not yet fully organised to offer a fully formed research and innovation policy.

The issue is not new in Spain. “In the 80’s it seemed that science had finally started to feature on the political agenda, overcoming the financial crisis in the 90’s and surviving until the beginning of this century,” says Jesús Sebastián Audina, a science policy expert who was vice-president of the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) from 1983 to 1988. However, with the financial crisis, in 2007, the CSIC offered 250 posts a year; in 2014 it offered just 32.

Others experts concur. “Historically, there has been no political, economic or social power that has seriously supported science,” says Emilio Muñoz, philosopher and historian of science, “and although we had some sort of Silver Age at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century, and later from the 1980’s to the beginning of the twenty-first century, we in essence have a country without a strategy regarding scientific research, and if we do not learn from our mistakes we will carry on being limited to construction and tourism.”

Rather than a State Deal for Science Muñoz pledges for “a Social Deal for Science”, because scientists “usually demonstrate alone and need to participate in wider social movements”.

Marta Espar

Marta is a freelance science journalist based in Girona, Spain.

Featured image credit: Ciencia para el pueblo



Pablo Echenique-Robba, Eurodeputy, Podemos

TEDxZaragoza, España, Zaragoza, Zaragoza, ESP

Pablo Echenique-Robba started his political career back in January 2014. Until then, he was a physicist at the public research agency CSIC, working, among others, on the issue of proteins folding. Now, he is involved in a citizen democracy movement, called Podemos. Here, Pablo Echenique shares his view on science in Spain and in Europe in an exclusive interview to the EuroScientist.

The movement started campaigning during the European Parliament elections, with financial support gained from crowdfunding . As a result, the movement secured five MEP positions out of 54 and 1.2 million votes –8% of the total–against the backdrop of the emergence of extremist right wing political parties. Podemos is led by Pablo Iglesias, a member of the faculty of political science from the Complutense University in Madrid.

Citizen participation in research policy

Podemos owes it success to its participative democracy approach. It has been able to attract the interest of many through the creation of circles. They are now more than 800 of them dotted around Spain and even abroad in cities where the brain drain has brought Spanish citizens to emigrate. These circles are designed to entice people’s participation to discussions and find constructive solutions to topics of common interest. These involve health, education, feminism, science, transport, civil servants, trade unions, immigration, full employment and research and innovation.

In this interview, Echenique touches upon his vision for the way Podemos is intending to write its future research and innovation programme. He believes in asking people who know how the system works and invite them to take part to the drafting of the policy.“ We don’t think that the top of the system is the people who know how the system works.”

New European research commissioner

Expanding on the European research context, he comments on the appointment of Carlos Moedas as the new research commissioner: “I think that the election of the commissioner, is not based on merit, is not based on know-how, is not based on anything apart from a pact between counties.”

He refers to the recent visit of Angela Merkel to Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy prior to the nomination of the new commissioner. He believes, they were making some secret pact while walking in the field of Galicia. He adds: “That’s what they call democracy. I don’t really think so. I don’t have a lot of hope that the new research commissioner is the best man for the job.”

He then suggests an alternative approach by advocating direct voting in open primaries. “I know from experience that the result is typically very good. Maybe direct democracy is not perfect. But what’s obvious and what’s clear from recent history of our continent, this fake of a democracy that we have is not good at all.”

Out of the recession

At the beginning of the interview, Echenique first talks about means to get out of the current recession.

“In the case of Spain, it is obvious that the growth model that Spain was aiming for was very unstable and not at all sustainable in time. We only had to have one crisis to have 25% unemployment. One of the failures of that growth model is that innovation was never on the table, never.”

He believes that to have a growth model in line with other more developed EU countries, “it needs to be based on added value and not building a lot of buildings or welcoming a lot of tourists in our beaches, then the only possible way of doing that is having a very strong innovation system, which, at the moment, the actual government is practically destroying it.”


Concerning what needs to be done to ensure the implementation of his vision, he argues for higher level of funding.

“Scientists in Spain have been able to do a lot with very little. So in that sense, I don’t think science in Spain has been inefficient. Rather the other way around. It has been extremely efficient… Scientists in Spain are doing magic. I don’t really think the system is inefficient, at the moment, I think it is underfinanced.”

He then adds: “In matters of man power, of people, we are fine. In matters of how to do things, we still have lots to learn from countries like Germany, for example, I am thinking about the Max Planck network of institutes, I think we have to look North for inspiration.”

Minimum support for R&D

Regarding the minimum agreement for supporting research and development in Spain presented at the Spanish Congress in December 2013, it was supported by all parties except the ruling party. The question of whether Podemos would support it, Echenique mentions that the party has yet to further organise internally, in getting a unique voice, but “I cannot see how Podemos wouldn’t support it, in the end…What is asked in the letter is the minimum. I think we should aim for more, and I told it so to the people responsible for Carta Abierta [por la Ciencia, involved in drafting this agreement]” he says.

Brain drain reversal and research funding increase

On issues pertaining to reversing the brain drain, he comments: “We have to make a plan for returning scientists.” He then touches upon the need to give scientists decent working conditions: “I think you have to give scientists a normal salary because, money wise, we scientists are not ambitious, so we only want to live a quiet life and have the basic things…”

He also adds: “But you also have to make the job positions stable.” That’s because if the scientist is thinking about their next postdoc or what they will do in the next six months, he says, they are not thinking about science. “I think, you have to provide scientists with stable careers and you have to have enough funding for the labs to run.”

Change in the governing class

In the biggest picture on how best to implement these changes, he says, “we have to change our governing class, if we want to have better science because the current governing class is not interested in research and development.”

He believes that even in countries that have a lot of private sector involvement in research, it is always the public sector making the largest discovery.

He adds: “I think that it’s a fairy tale, what our governing class thinks at the moment,” referring to the current innovation mantra of the Spanish government, whereby innovation is expected to stem from the private sector and not from publicly funded research.

Featured image credit: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 by TEDxZaragoza, Roberto Ruíz Herrera

Interview by Sabine Louët, EuroScientist Editor.


Italian scientists protest against budget cuts, crocodile tears included


In the successful Italian comedy, Smetto quando voglio (I can quit whenever I want), a group of young and talented scholars with no career perspective turns into a successful drug-dealing mob. The story is imaginary—a surreal rendition of Breaking Bad—but it is also the portrait of Italian academia. There, the shortage of funds, baronies, and scant meritocracy hamper the careers of many endowed scientists. This fiction is not that far from reality. Now, as an attempt to change their working conditions, Italian researchers are planning a protest movement in October, to take a stand against budget cuts and political apathy. There is no doubt that such movement is justified, but there is also a need for academics to run their universities better.

October protest

Compared with its GDP, Italy has the lowest public R&D investment of all EU15 Countries. The public expenditure for higher education is below the OECD average—in the EU, only Slovakia, Hungary and Greece are investing less, as per the 2013 OECD scoreboard. In addition, the budget for universities has decreased by 19% since 2008. The recruitment of new professors is virtually inexistent. And, in 2008, a controversial reform, dubbed the Gelmini law, failed to revitalise the university sector. To make things worse, a lingering economic recession brought unprecedented cuts to the government’s spending in R&D.

As a result, academics have now decided to fight back. On the 18th and 19th of October 2014, Italian researchers will join the protests of French and Spanish colleagues asking for more support to universities and basic science. While the French are planning to bike en masse towards Paris, Italians opted for a more traditional approach. At the time of writing, there were plans to organising a demonstration in Rome on the 18th October 2014. Many details have yet to be ironed out (See Note below).

But protestors are also planning to organising a series of gatherings of scientists at key academic centres to discuss the state of research in the country and the EU, using a slide presentation as a starting point—which will also be made available to all professors in Italy, invited to use it as the start of their classes. “The goal is to debunk many false myths surrounding Italian research,” says Francesco Sylos Labini, a physicist at the Italian Research Council (CNR) and the secretary of the association ROARS that promotes the initiative.

A larger ecosystem

Some believe that part of the myths on research stem from the disconnect between the political class and the science community. “Many politicians are nurturing the belief that the Italian academia is not productive and it’s not worth investing more money,” Sylos Labini adds, “but data indicates otherwise.” Indeed, according to the EC 2011 competitiveness report, Italy ranks 4th in the EU for the number of highly cited research papers, after the UK, Germany, and France.

Crucially, for each Euro spent on research, Italian universities receive as many citations as their US counterparts, according to a 2011 study commissioned by the UK’s Department of Business, Innovation and Skills. For Sylos Labini, this shows that the “Italian academia is basically healthy and productive.” But he warns that the budget cuts are creating a point of non-return where productivity will inevitably decline. Similar complaints about funding have also been heard in Spain.

Although Italian laboratories measure well in terms of publication ranking, some believe, excellent publications scores are not enough to make a successful research system. Papers are important, but today they are not the only measure of scientific quality, according to the Italian neurobiologist Stefano Bertuzzi, who is executive director of the American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB), based in Bethesda, Maryland, USA. “I am the biggest advocate of basic research, and our policy at the ASCB is unambiguous about it,” comments Bertuzzi who is also a former policy expert at the US National Institutes of Health (NIH). “But we need to see fundamental studies as a part of a bigger ecosystem that includes clinical and translational research, patent protection, and venture capital among other things,” he notes.

Tackling basic research alone is not sufficient. “There is no silver bullet,” Bertuzzi adds, “Basic science is what keeps the ball rolling, but you can’t turn scientific papers into real applications without all the other catalysts.” He concludes: “unfortunately, I don’t see this view taking place in Italy.”

The villain in academia

 In addition to creating a suitable ecosystem, further changes need to happen before other problems plaguing Italian academia are resolved. One is the feudal system ruling across Italian universities, which has been encouraged by the behaviour of many professors. For decades, universities have recruited researchers with local competitions that were often rigged, favouring underhand deals among professors and nepotism instead of merit.

Meanwhile, the difficulties in pursuing independent research and a non-transparent recruitment are often named by expats as the major problems keeping them abroad. Italy appears to remain unattractive for independent scientists regardless of how much money is available. For example, in 2013, of all the Italians with an ERC consolidator grant , which supports independent research with up to €2 million, more than a half chose to work abroad. This compares with only a third of German and a tenth of UK grantees who left their countries.

To keep or not to keep

The 2008 reform has introduced temporary positions and has put the recruitment in charge of a national research evaluation agency, ANVUR. But the murky criteria used for evaluation have been widely criticised.

In addition, the rigidity of the system, where professors can only be hired with a permanent contract, makes the turnover virtually inexistent. “The research system is stuck also because there is no turnover, “says Ilaria Capua, a virologist and one of the few scientists sitting in the Italian parliament. She adds: “Some universities are below reasonable standards but the state needs to finance them anyway, because professors are hired for life and cannot move elsewhere.”

As a result, young talents are not able to land an academic job. A mere 32.5% of Italian professors are younger than 45. And only one full professor out of ten is younger than 51. Many scientists, including Sylos Sabini, would like to see more researchers with a permanent job. “Stability is key to scientific productivity,” he says.

This is a double-edged sword, however, as permanent positions are what currently paralyse the system. Capua believes that a tenure-track-based career system, similar to what happens in the US and the UK, would give more opportunities to promising researchers. “But it’s very difficult to implement that in Italy,” she admits.

Science vs. shoemakers

Another issue is the lack of political support for research. In 2010, Silvio Berlusconi infamously asked why the government should pay scientists “when Italy makes the best shoes in the world”. Although other leaders have offered less stupid arguments, science policy has never been high on the Italian political agenda.

Is anything changing with a new government in place since February 2014? Not much, says Capua. “The priority that research gets in the parliament is zero. I am vice-president of the cultural committee and yet I couldn’t have it examine one of my projects on independent research. I see proposals on many other things being prioritised over science,” she deplores.

The current Italian minister for education, university and research, Stefania Giannini, is busy with a painstaking school reform, at the moment. And she has not yet appointed an undersecretary with a clear mandate for research. “As far as I know, research is not in the government’s agenda,” says Capua, who was elected in 2013 with Mario Monti’s Scelta Civica party, the same to which minister Giannini belongs.

First things, first

In such gloomy political climate, demands to invest more money in science are justified and rightful. Yet, researchers have other urgent battles to fight. While pleading for more funds, they should, according to some, lobby for a better evaluation system. “It’s striking that in Italy there is no independent research agency to evaluate projects with a stringent peer-review system,” says Bertuzzi, “this should be seen as a top priority by everyone.”

The creation of such an agency alone —which has been the object of discussion for years, to no avail—would be a game-changer in Italy. Indeed, many funding proposals are still reviewed by commissions that include a few influential professors. And the heads of research agencies are appointed by the government. A more credible and transparent academia will give no excuses to lazy politicians.

Editor’s note and update: Since the time of writing this article, plans have changed. Due to logistical difficulties and other challenges associated with the organisation of a protest in the streets of Rome, Italian activists from the Per la scienza, per la cultura movement are due to hold a briefing for the members of the Culture Committees of the Italian Parliament and for some Members of the European Parliament, on 18th October. This briefing is due to involve European research activists from other countries.

Featured image credit: Ascent Film, Fandango/01 Distribution 2014

Sergio Pistoi

Sergio is a freelance journalist based in Arezzo, Italy.


For the sake of Italian science and culture


Italian scientific research and university systems are in a dramatic position. The poisonous fruit of the recently approved university reform—referred to as the Gelmini law— assisted by the actions of successive governments, are reaching their goal: downsizing the university system and introducing a political control, never attempted before, on basic research.

The first objective has been achieved through the reduction of 20% of the total funding allocated to higher education—namely, in the form of a cut of 90% of the recruitment and 100% of the projects of basic research. The second objective has been achieved through the creation of the evaluation agency (ANVUR), operating outside of any acceptable evaluation standards. The agency has been entrusted to a caste of professors—accustomed to leadership roles—chosen on the basis of criteria that are not known.

This situation—which has been exacerbated by the effects of the recession—is on the verge of putting the future of new generations of researchers in jeopardy. And it therefore threatens the survival of the entire research system itself. Similar situations—more directly related to economic policy imposed by Europe—are found in Greece, Spain, Portugal and France. In the latter case, large cohorts of young talent are forced to abandon their research careers while funding has been drastically reduced.

In contrast to the fiscal consolidation that is written into the constitution, the target of the Lisbon Treaty, which aimed at bringing 3% of GNP investment in research and development, remains unattained. This, in turns, emphasises even more the unbalance in terms of scientific development between EU Member States, which is at the root of the economic gap between North and South in Europe.

The State investment in research is undisputedly one of the main engines of economic development. However, there is currently no effort to direct public spending towards those areas of quality that could produce in the medium to long term, a solid basis to support the country productive structure. It is quite the opposite, in the field of research. There is a net transfer of financial and human resources from the countries of Southern Europe to the Northern ones. This, in turn, amplifies the differences and inhibits any hope of recovery of Southern countries from the economic crisis.

A vast movement of researchers across Europe is organising a series of initiatives during the autumn with the aim of bringing research and innovation to the public attention and at the centre of governments’ action. Scientists must effectively contribute to overcoming the economic and moral crisis that we are experiencing. In Italy, there will be a great mobilisation “For the sake of science and culture.”

This involves a request for the refinancing of basic research and to grant greater access to higher education, as well as for a new recruitment policy accompanied by a reduction in the level of bureaucracy of the university system. The latter must begin by the resignation of the board of directors of the evaluation agency, ANVUR. The agency needs to be subjected to radical rethinking as has, so far, proved detrimental and led to a senseless waste of human and finance resources.

Translated from an editorial which originally appeared in Il Fatto Quotidiano newspaper on 8th September 2014.

Featured image credit: Francesco Sylos

Francesco Sylos Labini

Co-founder and editor at Return on Academic ReSearch (ROARS), Italy.


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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