Greece's new Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis watches his predecessor Alexis Tsipras leave the Maximos Mansion

Greece's incoming prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis (left), needs to back the research reforms of his predecessor, Alexis Tsipras (right).Credit: Angelos Tzortzinis/AFP/Getty

On 8 July, one of Greece’s leading physicists, Costas Fotakis, cleared his desk at the education ministry, where he had been in charge of research, and prepared to return to his institute in Crete.

The previous day, the left-wing Syriza government in which Fotakis had served as a minister had been resoundingly beaten by the centre-right New Democracy party in national elections. Still, as he returns to life as a working scientist, Fotakis can justifiably be proud of what he has achieved in his four and a half years in public office.

The Syriza government’s signature achievements include raising public spending on research to a record level of 1.13% of gross domestic product; creating the Hellenic Foundation for Research and Innovation (HFRI) in Athens, an independent national agency for basic research modelled on the European Research Council; and forming industry-friendly research programmes. Remarkably, all were achieved in the depths of a severe economic crisis.

Greece’s incoming prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, has pledged to do more to spur economic development. To achieve this, he has transferred research and technology out of the education ministry and into the ministry of development and investments. The new deputy minister for science is 39-year-old Christos Dimas, a former journalist and political-science academic. Researchers are right to be concerned.

Scientific priority

Fotakis took leave of absence from the Foundation for Research and Technology – Hellas (FORTH) Institute of Electronic Structure and Laser in Heraklion to join the Syriza government in January 2015, when Greece was deep into its foreign-debt-driven economic crisis.

A series of bailouts by the European Union after 2010 had been conditional on increasingly severe austerity measures at home. At the time of the crisis, investment in science, always well below EU levels, had shrivelled — researchers found their salaries slashed and their institutes struggling to pay electricity bills.

Yet within 18 months of taking office, Fotakis persuaded the European Investment Bank to co-finance the creation of the HFRI with a 15-year loan of €180 million (US$201 million) supplemented by €120 million from his own government. The HFRI launches regular calls for scientists at all career stages. As a result, a number of scientists who had left the country returned to establish independent research groups.

Fotakis also used money from the EU’s structural funds — subsidies to boost the economies of poorer regions — to pay for research programmes in applied and industrial research. Private investment in research also increased during his tenure. According to the scoreboard by which the EU assesses a country’s innovation performance, Greece has shot up from 61% of the EU average in 2011 to 82% in 2018.

Dimas has said that he doesn’t want to break up the existing research system, but to improve and expand it. That’s a wise position, given the transformation that Fotakis effected in his short tenure. Better still would be to provide researchers with a guarantee that the key reforms will remain.

It is a cast-iron rule of politics that new governments need to be able to distinguish themselves from the old, and Greece’s research environment might need fine-tuning. But in the quest to further boost economic development, the Mitsotakis government should not be tempted to cut back on basic research. It should not reduce the HFRI’s funding, nor interfere with its functioning.

The agency’s grant recipients and the students they train will be the raw material for the innovative industries that the government is promising, and which the people of Greece have waited too long to see.