Portugal: the knowledge capital of an entire generation in the balance

Portugal has experienced outstanding scientific progress among EU and OECD countries. Today, the country has a fast-growing, strongly internationalised and future-oriented science and technology community of researchers, many of whom are young. Despite the last two decades of amazing scientific progress, our extremely young National Research System still lacks a strong scientific structure. As such, it is, not surprisingly, quite fragile and highly sensitive to external and internal changes. While this was already the case before the recession, the current situation—with clear cuts in research funding, albeit at a lower pace than in other areas—imposes high levels of stress on researchers and institutions. It thereby amplifies the pre-existing weaknesses.

The current situation in Portugal is characterised by many individual labs and a few institutes at the brink of shutting their research activities down. This derives from their lack of funding for research projects, as success rates in national calls have dropped to 11%. As a result, most institutions have become heavily dependent on a few key researchers capable of bringing in the much sought after research funds.

Paradoxically, this is not due to scientific unemployment, even in some of the weaker institutions. In fact, the defining characteristic of the recent past, as well as the current policy, is an investment in people at the expense of research projects. This has resulted in a large community of people now being employed that have no available funds for research. The short sightedness of this policy is that, in the longer run, the inevitable lack of productivity of these people will lead to their low competitiveness. And, ultimately, to their unemployment. This situation highlights one of the most critical aspects affecting Portuguese national research: the lack of a clear long-term and integrated vision for science in Portugal.

Future remedy depends on more investment from the government. But, more importantly, on a different distribution of resources by the Ministry of Science and Education. Funding of people and projects must go together. Funding and national long-standing policies should protect and promote the strongest institutions and refocus the weaker institutions. It should also promote their interaction with national and international counterparts at higher standards. This requires a very strict evaluation of people and institutions in order to justly focus the funding on the most worthy ones – even at the politically incorrect cost of unemployment.

In fact, the tough political decision ahead is between limiting unemployment of the least competent or limiting productivity of the most competent. The key and often underplayed conundrum is that the second strategy will ultimately lead to more unemployment and thereby undermine the system. The scientific community should come together to help and fully support the policy and decision makers in this difficult task.

EU support is also critical not only in terms of funding and resources but also as a way to steer the institutions towards higher standards and research agendas with increasingly scientific and societal impact.

There can be no doubt that the current policies and austerity measures endanger the knowledge and innovation capital of an entire generation. This threat remains even though the scientific community in Portugal is highly vibrant and likely to have an extremely positive impact in the European Scientific structure. Examples of institutional and personal successes, as well as role models and leaders for the next generation of scientists, already exist in Portugal.

The future requires nurture and promotion of these success stories, as well as the capacity to attract new talent, toward the sustained development of a top research environment in Portugal.

Maria M. Mota

Group Leader, Malaria Unit, Instituto de Medicina Molecular (IMM), Faculdade de Medicina da Universidade de Lisboa, Portugal

The author thanks the Portuguese researchers Bruno Silva-Santos (IMM), Luís O. Silva (Instituto Superior Técnico), Luísa M. Figueiredo (IMM), Sérgio Dias (IMM), Carlos Ribeiro (Champalimaud Foundation), J. Henrique Veiga-Fernandes (IMM), Mónica Bettencourt-Dias (IGC) and António Jacinto (CEDOC) for their contributions and helpful discussions.

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