The appointment of physicist Costas Fotakis as Greek science minister had some researchers hoping that the incoming government, led by Alexis Tsipras, was determined to save Greek science from the vortex of the country’s debt crisis. Some hope. The dominant mood among the nation’s scientists now is outrage at new measures that raid research funds in a bid to stave off financial collapse. A decree approved on 24 April forces Greek universities and research centres to transfer any cash reserves they still hold to the Greek central bank.
Faced with horrendous capital flight from Greece, the government intends to use the funds — money that research organizations have set aside to pay electricity bills and other overhead costs not covered by external grants — to meet pressing financial obligations to international creditors.
Athens’s high-handed grip on disposable university budgets is unlikely to generate any substantial revenue. Instead, the ill-conceived move threatens to rekindle Greek scientists’ long-held aversion to the state. To balance the books, many observers point out, Greece would be better taking aim at the long-standing problem of poor tax compliance.
The government has assured outraged university rectors that the measure is temporary, and that universities can expect to get their money back without losses. And in the worst case — if Greece were to default on its loans and had to leave the eurozone — money deposited at private banks would be more at risk than deposits with the Bank of Greece, says Fotakis.
That may be so. But handing over research money to a government that has yet to prove its fiscal competence comes with a risk of its own. And with massive budget cuts over the past five years, Greek science has already paid its fair share towards solving the debt crisis.
The decree is not the only problem. A controversial bill proposed last month would reverse some of the reforms introduced by the previous government to bring Greece’s science and higher-education system in line with European norms. The government should be wary of changes that clash with attempts to make Greek universities more attractive to foreign students and scientists.
With a research expenditure of less than 0.6% of gross domestic product, Greece is one of the least science-friendly countries in Europe. Strengthening science is essential to stimulate economic growth and create the jobs that Greece so urgently needs.
If the government takes science seriously — and Fotakis’s appointment was a signal that it does — it should scrap the idea of borrowing money from cash-strapped research organizations. Political farsightedness and respect for science — a profession of truly Greek origin — demand that the detrimental decree be reversed.
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