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What next for research and innovation in Greece?

Stavros Papagianneas speaks with leading figures in the country’s research policy, and looks at what R&D might do to help lift the economic crisis.

On my most recent trip to Greece, I started my own informal accounting on how research and innovation might help the country emerge from crisis. The depth of that crisis was reflected in a conversation with physicist Dimitri Nanopoulos, the author of more than 500 papers in particle physics and cosmology and president of the Academy of Athens, the nation’s most prestigious research organisation.

He compared the past seven years of economic turmoil to the civil war in the late 1940s and the period of military rule between 1967 and 1974. Since the crisis hit, more than 200,000 young, educated professionals—a group with more than 50 per cent unemployment—have left the country.

Research minister Costas Fotakis, another physicist and the former director of a research institute in Crete, told me that research and innovation are priorities for the government, not only as engines of economic growth, but also for their cultural importance and as part of Greece’s international image.

Fotakis’s plans to reverse the brain drain include using the National Strategic Reference Framework (NSRF) and the financial tools to implement EU regional policy, along with money from the European Fund for Strategic Investments, to channel support to early-career researchers.

Nanopoulos, who is on sabbatical from Texas A&M University, is evangelical about the approach in the United States to research: “Independence of the universities, sponsorship from foundations, evaluation of results, and financial checks and balances—but complete freedom on the creative side—is the core of the American system. The results are clear on whatever index you use.” In contrast, he sees Greece, and the EU, as dominated by bureaucracy and cronyism. Fotakis acknowledges that Greek universities have weaknesses and face some serious challenges.

Despite this, Greece has the foundations of a strong research system. Even with spending on R&D standing at a paltry 0.6 per cent of GDP, the number of papers with Greek authors is close to the EU average. Greek researchers also participate in 1,205 signed grant agreements funded by the European Commission. This supports about 1,800 research posts and brings in nearly €500 million, according to the Commission’s 2011 Innovation Union Competitiveness report.

A crucial step towards maximising this potential would be to make the administration of research quicker and simpler. Fotakis noted that the rules around EU structural funds make them ineffectual as instruments of support for research and innovation.

Amending the NSRF to streamline procedures could hasten the funding of research programmes that are co-funded by the EU. The government has already granted more power and independence to the General Secretariat for Research and Technology—which is responsible for research policy and is the major public funder—as a move towards more long-term policies for research and innovation.

However, other moves by the government have caused concern in academia. A decree passed in parliament last month forces all universities and research centres to transfer their funds to Greece’s central bank, to help pay international creditors. The government has also announced controversial university reforms, getting rid of governing boards and incumbent rectors and giving students a large say in senior appointments.

While it is too early to say whether research and innovation policy and government reforms will boost the Greek economy, the appropriation of funds is not encouraging. It also means that making better use of EU funds is even more important.

Greece should look, for example, to the European Investment Bank, the Commission’s investment plan, and sponsorship from national and international foundations. Existing initiatives like Corallia, a public-
private partnership that supports start-ups and business clusters, should be reinforced. Tax incentives for research and innovation and attracting private investment are also paramount.

Greek universities, research institutes and businesses should also look more closely at the possibilities for funding and collaboration offered by the European Institute for Innovation and Technology in Budapest, which aims to integrate higher education, research and business by creating Knowledge and Innovation Communities. More than ever, Greece must be imaginative in sourcing funds for research and innovation.

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Stavros Papagianneas is managing director of StP Communications, a Brussels-based communications and PR consultancy.

This article also appeared in Research Europe