Greece May Not Be Able to Afford CERN

As part of its austerity drive, Greece has temporarily reduced its annual payment to the European Space Agency (ESA) and is considering a similar cut to the CERN particle physics laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland. A €10 million hole in his roughly €80 million annual budget is forcing Konstantinos Kokkinoplitis, general secretary for research and technology, to weigh the unpleasant choice between lowering the country's global science presence or squeezing the country's 11 national research centers.

Greece spent only 0.6% of its gross domestic product on R&D in 2007, from both public and private sources, compared to 1.85% across the 27 countries of the European Union in that year. In 2009, the country's new prime minister, George Papandreou, promised to boost that figure to 2% by 2013. But within 2 years, spending was headed in the opposite direction, as the government cut the budgets of the research centers by about 30%, to roughly €55 million. One month ago, Kokkinoplitis announced a further €10 million cut in funding for the research centers as part of a broader reduction in government spending ordered by the "Troika" of the European Union, the European Central Bank, and the International Monetary Fund.

Costas Synolakis, president of one of the largest of the 11 centers, the Hellenic Center for Marine Research in Anavyssos, just south of Athens, said the previous cuts had been absorbed by reducing spending on operations and expenses, but that further belt-tightening would be impossible. Any additional cuts, he says, would have to come from savings on personnel costs. In practice, he says, that would mean shutting some of the research centers for the last few months of the year, because researchers at the centers are tenured civil servants and cannot legally be fired or have their salaries reduced.

The research centers receive the majority of the ministry's overall budget, with most of the rest taken up by the country's subscriptions to international scientific organizations. Last month, the 11 directors met with Kokkinoplitis and discussed reducing Greece's €17 million annual subscription to CERN, the largest slice of the €27 million spent this year to partner with other countries on research collaborations. "Most directors have been trained abroad, and all said … Greece needs to be part of it," Synolakis says. "Yet everyone agreed that if it comes to the survival of the centers, the contribution to CERN will need to go or be substantially reduced. It is sad, but it came to that."

Kanaris Tsinganos, director of the National Observatory of Athens, agrees that the national research centers must come first. "I was very supportive of us joining the European Space Agency in 2005," he says, "but … it would be weird to close the research centers and pay all of these international subscriptions." Greek officials recently negotiated a temporary €6 million reduction in their €14-million-a-year contribution to ESA, with the promise that they would make good on the full amount in 2013.

Kokkinoplitis has now started similar negotiations with CERN. Although details still have to be worked out, he says one option is to have the lab pay half of Greece's subscription this year and then be reimbursed either next year or the year after. "We don't want to withdraw from these organizations but to facilitate some kind of arrangement for a couple of years," he adds. "They want to help us." Under the CERN bylaws, a country's payment is tied to its GDP, and any permanent change in its contribution would need to be approved by the CERN council of member nations.

Kokkinoplitis says he is also studying the feasibility of reducing the amount of "matching funds" that the Greek government needs to contribute to E.U.-backed projects, as well as receiving a helping hand from other government ministries. The bottom line, he says, is that the research centers must be protected. "I believe the centers are doing quite well, and I don't want to affect their functioning," he explains. "There is no [possibility] that they will shut down or be forced to fire staff."

Any deviation from the plan to trim €10 million from the research centers may need to win approval from the Troika. And any negotiations may be put off until after national elections in early May, Synolakis says, increasing fears that "some research centers will close down" even if Kokkinoplitis eventually works out a deal to reduce the international subscriptions.

Synolakis also says that the center directors may take action if the €10 million cut is not substantially reduced. "If it all comes to naught, we have discussed the possibility of resigning," he says. "This would send the message that what the government is asking cannot be implemented."