Greek scientists debate the economic crisis

02 Jul 2015 | Viewpoint
Greece’s research base is crumbling and the brightest minds brain draining away, many warn. Science|Business talks to two representative researchers about what should be done

As politicians in Brussels and Athens continue the high-stake negotiations, Greece’s scientists, beggared by seven years of recession, are surveying their idle labs. 

The country’s science base is shrinking. Since 2009, research centres and universities in Greece have seen their budgets cut by up to 50 per cent. Departments are being merged or closed and the average monthly take-home pay of university lecturers has fallen.

“There’s no money for research,” says Varvara Trachana, an assistant professor of cell biology at the University of Thessaly. “I’m getting my salary but nothing else.”

Sick and tired of year upon year of punitive cuts, she will be voting ‘No’ in Sunday’s referendum on whether or not the country accepts austerity measures demanded by its creditors. Trachana thinks there has to be a better way of reversing an economic collapse, and investment in research - even in such straitened times, is the most obvious one. “It’s the only way out of this mess. Especially for us, for Spain, for Ireland, for Italy,” she said.

By contrast, Evangelos Bakeas, an assistant professor in the University of Athens’ chemistry department, is a ‘Yes’ voter. “‘Yes’ means going back to sit at a table to very seriously discuss an agreement,” he said.

The choice of how to vote Sunday won’t neatly suggest left-right connotations, the way he sees it. “It’s not an ideological vote. The ‘No’ voters are tired [of austerity].”

Having witnessed a large swathe of his colleagues leave over the past few years, he’s weary too. He said proposals by creditors so far, “are good in theory but not in practice. They’ve caused a lot of damage.”

As asphyxiating as the economic situation is, he can’t countenance life after a ‘No’ vote, which many leaders say could be a fateful step towards leaving the Eurozone. “Research has big problems in Greece. [With a Yes vote] I hope finally something good can happen,” he said.

Top universities in Athens and Thessaloniki, Greece’s second-largest city, are under particular pressures, said Trachana. “They have huge problems meeting their operating costs – paying electricity bills, paying cleaners.” Greek libraries are being depleted. “We’ve had a notice to say all big publishing houses will cut access to journals. They haven’t been paid,” she said.

No access to Nature or Science may seem minor when compared to the country’s other problems, but it is certainly symbolic of the way in which the science base has been ravaged.

There was speculation yesterday Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras would call off the plebiscite. However German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a powerful figure in Greece’s negotiations in Brussels, seems to have taken away that option. “Before the referendum, no further talks on an aid programme can take place,” she said in a statement.

Bright minds leaving

The collapse of Greek science does not reveal itself everywhere. Traditionally, Greeks do well in drawing in EU science money and it was revealed last week that they have actually got better at doing so.

But with a rate of youth unemployment now in excess of 60 per cent, many medics have left the country. “We’re facing our biggest brain drain ever,” said Trachana. “We’re just producing them and sending them away.”

“It’s really not nice to see organisations coming to my university and trying to attract students to work abroad. If they leave because of free choice, that’s fine. But it shouldn’t be because they feel they don’t have a future here.”

Trachana’s graduates would earn €900 per month if they worked as doctors in Greece, a sum well below what they would be paid in Western European countries.

Lobbying for science

Greeks have grown accustomed to demonstrating, but there is no strong, organised science lobby. “I think we need a more grassroots organisation,” Trachana said.

The obvious template is Spain’s Podemos (“We Can”), an anti-austerity party formed by angry and frustrated academics. Its success was instant: after amassing over one million votes, the party won five seats in the European Parliament in Brussels last year.

Greece’s current government, led by the Syriza party, is cut from the same cloth as Podemos ideologically, but it has not yet delivered anything for researchers. There were election promises on new grant calls but they have not materialised, said Trachana, who has not seen a research call in her area for five years.

“We haven’t seen any calls for us. There’s been a few applied calls. More and more there’s a focus on a research group teaming up with a small company. Where are researchers going to find a small company in Greece? You could probably count them on one hand,” she says.

International support for Greek researchers is not very noticeable either. “I’ve seen people protest on main squares in Paris, Rome, Dublin and Brussels,” said Trachana. “But I haven’t seen public letters of support from researchers in other countries.”

Discouraged by Horizon 2020 success rates

Excellent projects are needed to make the grade in the EU’s Horizon 2020 research programme, meaning lots of countries in East and South Europe are shut out, said Trachana. She is dismayed at the programme’s average success rate, which have fallen to between 12 and 14 per cent – and said it is a major discouragement.

“Robert-Jan Smits [director-general for research in the European Commission] said he’s worried top universities will stay away. If even the top ones can’t do it, what about the little ones?” she asked.

When asked about looking for money from the European Research Council (ERC), which commands a huge budget for basic research Trachana laughs and shakes her head a little at the suggestion. “That’s even harder than Horizon 2020!” she said.

The ERC could fund many more researchers if it reduced the generous amounts – anywhere up to €2 million – it awards researchers, she added.

“You cannot give that amount of money to one researcher. You could share it among ten.”

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