Hundreds of young scholars are being ‘held hostage’ by the Greek state

Figurines and a euro on a Greek flag

The Greek government’s accession to EU and IMF demands to curtail public spending has left young researchers out in the cold. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images


By V. Trachana and S. Gialis

Greece is reeling from six years of recession. Its economy resembles a 1930s-style Great Depression, with GDP having fallen by more than 20% and an official unemployment rate close to 30%. Among young, well-educated Greeks, unemployment hit 56.5% in early 2013.

Talking about scientific research against this economic backdrop might seem a luxury, but against all the odds Greek scientists’ contribution to the top 1% of the most-cited research articles has been ranked 13th in the world, above Canada, Italy and France. What’s more, for every euro invested, the Greek research community generates three.

How on Earth did Greece manage this? A possible explanation might be that Greek scientists have done really well in obtaining funds from European schemes such as the Framework Programmes. They rank second in Europe in terms of funds allocated per researcher.

You might expect that this human potential would be supported and encouraged by the Greek state. In fact, successive governments have cut back public expenditure on higher education and research. Even pre-crisis Greece was already ranked near the bottom of the list of EU member states for the proportion of GDP invested.

Things got a lot worse when the shock waves from the collapse of Lehman Brothers crashed on Greece’s shores. Since 2009, research centres and universities have seen their budgets cut by about 30% and 50% respectively. Salaries of scientists and faculty members have been cut by about 30%, leaving a typical lecturer with only €1,000 to take home each month. The 2013 education budget will reduce funds by a further 14%, effectively condemning Greek science to a state of dormancy.

As if this weren’t enough, since April the ministry of education has not paid subscriptions to academic journals. The denial of access to scholarly papers, the lifeblood of research, could mark the beginning of the end for creative science at Greek universities and research institutes.

By far the most dramatic impact of austerity, however, has been the “hostage situation” it created for around 750 university lecturers still waiting to be appointed to a faculty two to four years after being elected. These scholars, all PhD holders with significant academic and research credentials (many with years of postdoctoral experience abroad), were evaluated during a long, demanding process and elected to serve as faculty members. Instead they have been placed on a “waiting list”.

The government’s accession to EU and IMF demands to curtail public sector recruitment is effectively holding these young researchers hostage. In 2012, for the first time in decades, the Ministry of Education appointed no university professors. The last time it made a call for new faculty members was in 2010. The natural and necessary renewal of university staff with new blood has been abruptly suspended.

These 750 hostages of the Greek state are being sacrificed both on a personal and professional level. After years in limbo, many have turned towards casual, precarious or short-term employment outside academia, or have already left Greece to seek research posts in the rest of Europe, the US, or Australia. They are joining the 130,000 Greek graduates who according to a 2011 estimate are already living and working outside the country. The term “brain drain” seems like a euphemism for the extinction of an entire generation of high-calibre scientists, exactly at the time their skills are most needed to boost the economy.

Universities that are forced to close their doors to young scholars become lifeless and impotent, and have little hope of producing new knowledge through scientific research.

Varvara Trachana is a biologist and assistant professor at the department of medicine, University of Thessaly (elected, pending appointment since March 2011). Stelios Gialis is an economic geographer and assistant professor at the department of geography, University of the Aegean, (elected, pending appointment since December 2011). They are both members of the Initiative of Non-appointed Faculty Members