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Greek expat academics' initiative aims to reverse the country's brain drain

When Kalliopi Kalaitzi was invited to attend a 1-month medical training course in Germany in 2013, she expected that she would return to her home country of Greece once it was over. “It’s summer; I’m going on vacation,” she thought to herself. But at home, Kalaitzi—who had completed her medical degree 7 years earlier—had been stuck in a sort of career holding pattern. Greece’s surplus of doctors, as well as the social and financial turmoil that began in the late 2000s, meant that she could only work as a medical intern while waiting to be placed in a plastic surgeon residency. She tried to avoid career stagnation by pursuing master’s degrees in health services management and global health and disaster medicine, attending conferences, and networking, but it was clear that the opportunities to move her career forward in Greece were limited. So, at the end of the month at the clinic in Dresden, when she was offered a contract as a medical care provider, a house, and a crash course in German, she knew that her best option was to accept. She has been living and working in Germany ever since.

In some ways, she’s happy with how her career has unfolded. Now a physician and research fellow pursuing her Ph.D. at Charité University Hospital in Berlin, she knows that being in Germany has offered greater resources and opportunities than she would have had in Greece—not to mention double the salary. Still, she craves for “nostos”: her homecoming. “I did not leave my country. My country drove me away,” Kalaitzi says.

She is far from alone. Since 2010, more than 130,000 university graduates have left Greece to look for work, making up approximately 75% of the total immigrant population, a 2015 study from researchers at the University of Macedonia reports. But 53.4% of Greeks who belong to the “brain drain” generation would return within 2 years if deep structural changes in the Greek establishment were enforced, according to a report from a Greek group called Brain Gain. “I would return yesterday if things improved in Greece,” says Haralampos Hatzikirou, a project leader at the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research in Braunschweig, Germany, who left Greece in 2001 after finishing his bachelor’s degree to pursue further studies. “It is not only the sentimental aspect of a possible comeback, but our obligation to society and the Greek tax payer,” he says, noting that the free education that Greece offers is “a national investment … that should be returned to society.” Yet, he feels he has been trapped abroad ever since the Greek crisis began in 2009, when he was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Houston in Texas, because Greece simply cannot offer the financial and institutional resources that would allow him to pursue his research there.

Brain Gain is working to change that. The group, which now has more than 100 members (including Hatzikirou), was officially launched in June 2016 after an initial meeting of seven Greek researchers and academics, including scientists as well as legal scholars, economists, and strategic communication specialists. The group has started developing a set of best practices for the Greek government and research institutions. The overall idea, according to co-founder Fokion Sinis, a pharmacist and health economist who is the head of commercial affairs and strategy for middle Africa at Novo Nordisk in the United Arab Emirates, is that they will describe examples of how countries “known for their higher rates of meritocracy and lower rates of corruption” deal with thorny problems, such as wasteful spending and lack of transparency in hiring practices at universities and research institutes, and in the public sector more broadly.

Currently, individual Brain Gain members can post brief proposals that describe ways to tackle a problem in their field of expertise. The rest of the members assess the proposals for scientific soundness. Once all the proposals have been submitted and reviewed, the members will vote for the best practices in each field. The group then plans to present the final document to the Greek parliament.

Although Brain Gain is focused on Greece, many of the challenges the group is addressing are relevant elsewhere as well. In particular, lack of funding and uncertainty and instability in academic careers are also problems in the United States and European Union, Hatzikirou points out. Given how widespread many of these problems are, watching the Brain Gain initiative unfold could be instructive for researchers from other countries.

Maria Karagiannidou is one of the expat Greek scientists who has joined the Brain Gain movement in hopes that she may be able to contribute to improving the situation so that she can return to her home country. She already had one homecoming after going to the United Kingdom for bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the 2000s. But in 2013, she had to leave again. She was a research associate and project manager at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and the National School of Public Health, among other affiliations, and she and her colleagues were forced to stop working because they hadn’t been paid for months, she says. “Compare that with a fertile, productive environment where everything runs like clockwork and I need to focus my creative energy only on the scientific strides made in my sector,” says Karagiannidou, describing her current positions as a doctoral candidate at the London School of Economics and Political Science and a visiting junior academic at the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing in the United Kingdom.

Recently, Karagiannidou saw a fresh reminder of why she felt forced to leave her country to pursue her career. She approached an official from her hometown in northeastern Greece with an idea for an ambitious project to work with local hospitals and care facilities to help prevent dementia. She volunteered to oversee and implement it free of cost. But her proposal fell on deaf ears. “Despite our credentials, we are still ignored,” she says. Even so, Karagiannidou is hopeful that the Brain Gain venture will fix many of the ills plaguing the Greek workplace. “On a Brain Gain scale, we can have more of an impact … and this will prepare the ground for our comeback.”

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