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Greek crisis spurs research reforms

Economic meltdown adds fresh vigour to science shake-up.

Despite protests against austerity measures in Greece, some scientists see an opportunity for change. Credit: Reuters/P. Rossignol

"The threat is very clear," says Greek native Vassilis Pachnis, a developmental neuroscientist at the UK National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR) in London. "There is a danger that this financial crisis could damage the status of centres of research excellence in Greece."

Last week, the Greek government agreed to implement further austerity measures in order to get another international bail-out for its crippled economy. Scientists were already facing tough times when Greece made its first bail-out request in April 2010 (see Nature 465, 22; 2010). Their take-home pay, which was cut by 10% last March, will now shrink by at least another 10% under the new austerity programme. Direct financing of universities and research institutes was cut by about 20% last year, and is set to fall further, although the Greek ministry of education was unable to provide Nature with precise figures.

Any damage to science is unlikely to be permanent, Pachnis emphasizes. Like some other Greek scientists, he is hopeful that the country's economic woes may have a positive side. Reforms to the inflexible research and university systems, which do not systematically evaluate research quality or offer competitive grants, are now seen as a necessity in the country's fight for survival. "There is going to be terrible upheaval at universities and possibly the research centres too," says neurobiologist Rebecca Matsas at the Hellenic Pasteur Institute, Athens. "But in this economic situation there is no way out, and reforms are urgently needed."

Credit: Source: Eurostat

Although the quality of Greece's science is generally seen as poor, the country does boast pockets of excellence. Several internationally competitive research institutes have managed to flourish despite low government investment (see 'Spending gap'). Greek scientists have also been very successful in winning funding from the European Commission's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) of research, being awarded more euros per researcher than almost any other European Union (EU) country. The planned reforms, spurred by the financial crisis, could help to capitalize on these successes.

The National Council for Research and Technology, a scientific advisory board to the government, is currently designing Greece's first ten-year strategic plan for research. The council was reformed in September 2010 so that most of its members are academics working outside Greece. Using EU structural funds for research, the first major calls for competitive research projects since 2005 are being issued by the government's General Secretariat for Research and Technology. A total of €1.5 million (US$2.2 million) of these funds must be spent before the end of 2013. "We will be recommending that they are distributed only on merit, through an agency modelled on the US National Science Foundation or the European Research Council," says council leader Stamatios Krimigis, a space scientist at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland.

The council's subcommittees, also comprising a majority of scientists working outside Greece, will carry out site visits to evaluate the scientific output of research institutes. These will guide policy on restructuring the research system, and are inevitably causing widespread anxiety. "By next year, there will be fewer institutes," says paediatrician George Chrousos at the University of Athens Medical School, who is also a council member. That will probably happen through mergers, he adds: "The aim is not to fire people but to make them more effective, and the institutes more efficient."

Meanwhile, universities are also set for a shake-up thanks to a new higher-education law, expected to be approved by the end of this month. It will scrap a system that has favoured local recruitment, and make it easier for roughly 12,000 Greek scientists working abroad to return. The change may have come just in time: 25% of Greek universities' faculty members are due to retire in the next three years.

Under the law, each university will establish committees (including scientists from abroad) to oversee academic recruitment, which is currently decided by a faculty vote. The law will also modernize university governance, so that rectors will no longer be elected by university staff and students. Instead, a new board of directors will pick their university's rector after an inter­national competition, and will have the power to fire the rector for poor performance.

The next few years will undoubtedly be extremely tough. Although the government says that it is determined to develop Greece's research base, it has not protected research funding in its austerity packages. And it is having trouble meeting its commitments to match research money that scientists have won from FP7. Greece is also negotiating deferrals of its contributions to international organizations such as the European particle-physics facility CERN, near Geneva in Switzerland, and the European Space Agency.

But the most competitive research labs should be sustained by more than €400 million expected to come from EU structural funds by the end of this year. And despite the turmoil, Pachnis is planning to leave the safe haven of his current post as head of the NIMR's neuroscience division to become director of the Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology in Heraklion, Crete. The move offers scientific opportunities that are too good to pass up, he says, and he is confident that Greek science as a whole will survive. "If I can help keep the infrastructure afloat at one centre of excellence through this hard time," he says, "I'll be happy."


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Abbott, A. Greek crisis spurs research reforms. Nature 475, 13–14 (2011).

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