Greece’s Debt Crisis Torments Scientists

(August 13th, 2015) Christos Georgiou, biochemist at the University of Patras, gives us a first-hand report on the current situation in his home country.

Greece’s financial crisis, which has taken Europe by storm this past year, climaxed last month. Banks shut down and the Greek economy came to a grinding halt. Worse, the indebted nation was left with accepting austerity measures imposed by its creditors – in exchange for a bailout, the only option to rebuild a fractured economy – but boldly rejected the terms, showcasing its proclivity for “humanitarianism” and “democracy”. Luckily, thanks to another round of negotiations with the European Union (EU) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the country gradually dusted itself off and closely evaded “Grexit”, or Greece’s exit from the EU.

But a happy ending for Greece, it appears, is still a distant dream. As per ongoing talks, Greece will soon receive a third international bailout of €86 billion – two earlier bailouts totaled €240 billion – to mitigate its international debt. But the country’s research and education sector, as many of its other domains, continue to face the brunt of the recession. Will Greece be able to sustain funds for research and education, or will science take a back seat in the wake of the crisis? 

Nature of impact

When banks closed down in July, scientific research in Greece ran into numerous problems. For one, Greek research defaulted on a membership payment to CERN, and research institutes suffered from the lack of liquid cash – for instance, the Hellenic Center for Marine Research (HCMR) could not embark on field trips, and the Fleming Center in Vari, as several other institutions, could not afford the cost of imported research consumables. These issues, although vexing, are hopefully being resolved as banks are reopened and recapitalized.

But a mightier blow in fact came from the journals access portal Hellenic Academic Libraries Link (HEAL-Link) which announced, in late June, that its contract with scientific publishers expired, and that it is unable to secure funds to pay for journals at this time. HEAL-Link is a centralised internet portal that offers Greek universities, which rarely have funds for institutional subscriptions, free access to scientific journals.

Christos Georgiou
, a biochemistry professor at University of Patras, Greece, says that funding for the portal has in fact dwindled since the global recession in 2008. He adds, “The annual budget for HEAL is €11,000-12,000 but only a half of it is financed by the Greek state. The problem arises for the rest half of the budget.” Although the goal of HEAL is to relieve universities of subscription costs, HEAL has been counting on universities’ funds to make ends meet. Georgiou says that major universities, such as his, allocate as much as €500,000 p.a. for journal subscriptions. But this figure too has slumped to €300,000 this year. “We still manage but we don’t know what is going to happen in future,” he says.

At stake

The repercussions of Greece’s faltering economy for science extend beyond impeded literary access and reduced research funds. The recession over the years has introduced major changes in academic hiring. “Before the [global financial] crisis, every professor who retired was automatically replaced by another one, but this has not been the case for the last five years,” Georgiou says. The biology department at his university started out with 55 faculty members before the global economic crisis, but is now left with only 32 of them. He adds that unlike faculty numbers, student enrollments have been following the opposite trend, creating a situation of too few professors for the students. The imbalance has caused a spike in graduate unemployment, and much worse, brain drain. According to a report on the CNN website, youth unemployment in Greece stands at 50% and emigration at 3%. The latter translates to about 270,000 Greeks between the ages 20 and 39.

Few options

At this point, there is a handful of options for a country steeped in debt to save its science. Despite its thorny economic climate affecting its science, Greece’s research has been performing well in the international arena. “Greek papers have made it to the top 500 publications last year,” Georgiou says. This was perhaps made possible by Greece’s membership in Seventh Framework Program, the seventh funding program in a series that fosters research in EU countries, and the EU’s so-called structural funds that have supported Greek labs. To continue receiving the support, it might be best for Greece to avoid jeopardising its relationship with the EU but instead ramp up measures to revive its economy.

On the flip side, it is worrisome that Greece – a country which owes as much as 180% of its GDP to the rest of the world – may not be able to regain its economy by simply cranking up taxes and cutting down pensions. Georgiou says, “What Greece owes to the IMF is unsustainable, and there is no hope for Greece unless the debt is drastically cut down.”

Madhuvanthi Kannan

Photo: Borland

Last Changes: 09.25.2015