Greece, Spain, Italy, and Portugal are among the countries hit most severely by Europe's economic crisis. Science has not been spared. Last Friday, in a meeting organized under the auspices of EuroScience, scientists from the four countries gathered in Barcelona to discuss the impact of the funding cuts. Among the speakers was Varvara Trachana, a Greek biologist who, in April 2011, was hired by the University of Thessaly, Larissa, to fill an assistant professor position in cell biology at the Faculty of Medicine. But today, more than 2 years later, the Greek government has not yet approved the budget necessary to pay Trachana's salary, effectively leaving her unemployed.
Trachana is hardly alone in this predicament. Some 750 Greek scientists, at least, have spent a minimum of 2 years waiting for their salary to be funded so they can start their tenure-track positions at one of the Greek universities. The problem is so prominent that there's even an organization for it, the Initiative of Non-appointed Faculty Members of Greek Universities.
"This is the main problem: We have no idea when the government will make another placement." —Varvara Trachana
Science Careers talked to Trachana about her situation, how she is managing to keep her life and her research on track, and the Initiative’s efforts to improve the situation. These interview excerpts have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: What brought you into science in the first place?
V.T.: I fell in love with biology as an undergraduate. I knew from almost day one that I would stay in science and research even though it’s very, very difficult. It’s a passion.
Q: Please tell us about your career path.
V.T.: I have a degree in biology from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, where I also did my Ph.D. in biological chemistry. Then I did a postdoc in Madrid for 5 years, at the Spanish National Centre for Biotechnology, and then I went back to Greece and did another postdoc at the National Hellenic Research Foundation. I applied for this assistant professor job at the University of Thessaly and I got it, but I am still waiting to be placed.
Q: What made you come back to Greece?
V.T.: I stayed in university in Greece for 10 years—5 years for the first degree and then 5 to 6 years for the Ph.D.—and I feel like I am a daughter of the Greek university system. I really wanted to give something back for all the things I was given by the system.
Q: What was the economic situation when you came back?
V.T.: When I went back to Greece, in 2008, I wasn’t aware of the crisis. I joined this rather strong group on aging and we had, and still have, European funding, and things were more or less stable for a while.
Q: What is the current context for doing science in Greece?
Since 2008, the national budget for the universities and research centers was cut by 50 percent. Departments are closing and universities are being merged. There has been no new faculty hiring since 2010, and the government has been cutting the administrative staff by almost 50 percent in some universities. The administrative staff has been on strike for 2 months now.
We have had a couple of calls for national grants in the last 2 or 3 years, but awardees are having problems getting the funding. The government releases a bit of the money, and then you have to wait 2 to 3 months to get another bit. In my case, I participated in a successful grant proposal and got a short-term research contract, funded through Structural Funds from Europe. We applied in July 2011, and the result came out in August 2012. But, until today, we have still seen zero Euros. Something is going on, some bureaucratic stuff we don’t understand.
Then, starting in April, we have been losing access every day to journals from many publishing houses because the Greek government didn’t approve the budget for such expenses.
Q: What is the current situation for scientists in the Initiative of Non-appointed Faculty Members of Greek Universities, in particular?
V.T.: We are kind of hired but not there. It’s a very, very strange situation. Most of us are giving classes or doing research in the university that has hired us, but in many cases without having any actual contract or receiving any salary. People are still trying to keep up with their research because you cannot stay out of science for 2 years, 3 years, or 4 years just because the government decides so. You need to publish in these years in order to stay alive as a scientist, and people are doing it by working for free. Some in the Initiative have, however, opted for working outside of science or leaving the country.
Q: How has the problem evolved over time?
V.T.: The Greek university system is rather bureaucratic, so, even before the crisis, it took 1 year to be placed. Back then people just kept on working where they were previously working, so they were sort of OK. But now many people don’t have any jobs at all, and since 2009 people have been piling up, piling up, and piling up on a waiting list, hoping for their faculty appointments to finally become effective. The wait has now gone from 1 year to 4 years, which is outrageous.
Now we are some 750, but we used to be more than that. The Initiative was created in 2010, and back then there were some 1200 people on that list. At the beginning of 2012, the government placed some 400 new lecturers. And now, in August, they have promised us another 400 appointments. I am not going to be among those however, because the waiting list is organized by the date in which we were hired by the dean of our respective university, so the first 400 would be placed now. I and the other 350 will have to wait until, we don’t know when. This is the main problem: We have no idea when the government will make another placement.
Q: How are you coping?
V.T.: At the moment I am working on stem cell aging in my old postdoc lab at the National Hellenic Research Foundation. I do not get any salary yet, since the funding for the project we got last year hasn’t started.
Q: What about your own living expenses?
V.T.: Well, my husband supports me with his income. He’s a scientist working in Greece, and fortunately he’s getting paid.
Q: What has been the impact on your work?
V.T.: Like everybody else, I’m doing the very best I can. I go to the lab every day, but I would say that work is about 60 percent of what I would normally do. I am trying to keep up with my publications by trying to write a few review articles, because these are cheap in terms of materials. And we’re trying to continue with the research we got our national grant for, because, even though the government is not giving us the money, they are still expecting us to provide our deliverables and meet our milestones on time.
Q: How did it make you feel when you understood the situation you were in?
It takes a long time to realize. I am one of the young ones on the Initiative. We have other people who have been waiting for 4 years, and they are all very angry with the system. And for the first time, some people who went abroad to do a postdoc in the United Kingdom or in the United States and are now up for being placed are refusing to take their positions back in Greece. This never happened before, even though the salaries were very low compared with the United Kingdom or the United States. Maybe this is because the situation is dramatically unstable in the Greek universities, and because of rumors that the government is going to fire a lot of the lecturers and assistant professors.
Q: From the Initiative you are trying to fight back. How?
We are trying to inform the Greek society. Not even people in universities knew that the problem was so big, and they didn’t understand that there are a lot of consequences. For example, in many places they don’t teach courses that we were supposed to teach, and also there are not enough young faculty members to replace the full professors when they retire. So we try to inform the society the best way we can, by writing articles and going on national TV. We’re also writing letters to the government and have tried to talk to them quite a few times, but they’re just saying, these are austerity measures, everybody is suffering.
Q: Do you worry that, if you stay in this environment, you will irreversibly damage your scientific career?
Yes, I have this fear, so this is a question of balance. I feel like I have this obligation to fight back because, yes, everybody is suffering, but the issue is about the younger people, and it is about the future. But when I see that my career is starting to sustain more damage than I can afford, then probably I will go out of the country again. But I will stay in research.
Q: What take-home message would you like to convey to Greek scientists at an earlier stage of their career?
I would say that they should stay in science, if this is their dream. They should stay in science even if, now, some of them find it difficult to do a Ph.D. in Greece because the resources are limited. Maybe they can go outside the country, in Europe or elsewhere, and come back to Greece so we can build together upon Greek science, which is well worth saving and maintaining.