Greek government raids research funds to pay public salaries

Trine Juel/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Greek government raids research funds to pay public salaries

Greek scientists are angry and incredulous at what they see as a double-pronged government attack on the country's research system: the confiscation of research funding to plug a hole in Greece's ever worsening finances, and a new reform of higher education that they say will make universities more politicized and less meritocratic.

The cash seizure was authorized in an emergency decree passed by Greece's Parliament in a heated and emotional session last week. The decree forces local government and other state bodies to transfer their cash reserves to the Bank of Greece in order to pay salaries and pensions of public-sector employees. As Science went to press, it remained unclear exactly how much money would be targeted and when it would be taken, but researchers expect the government to grab funds set aside to pay for overheads. These amount to as much as 20% of the value of grants and pay for utility bills and temporary staff as well as expenses that are not covered up front by research agencies.

Costas Fotakis, research minister in the government coalition led by the left-wing Syriza Party, describes the move as an "interim measure" that will place the money in accounts with high interest rates of 2.5% and return it later. "We do hope that a fair agreement in the ongoing negotiations for the Greek debt will be reached soon, by the end of June," he said in an e-mail. "Then this measure will be waived."

To reduce the level of confiscations, many researchers are frantically shifting or spending as much of their overhead reserves as they can, in some cases by stocking up on consumables and paying Ph.D. students' salaries for several months in advance. "I have little doubt that a massive exercise in hiding research money from the government is probably under way," says Costas Synolakis, a marine scientist now at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. The government raid is resented by Greek scientists who have seen their salaries cut by about 30% in the past 3 years and who rely increasingly on E.U. funding for their research—Greece spends just 0.6% of its gross domestic product on R&D.

On a second front, researchers are also fighting educational reform that the government announced out of the blue on 17 April without public consultation. The reform involves scrapping universities' governing boards, removing existing rectors, and giving students a large share of the votes to appoint new rectors. As such, it reverses many changes brought in by a 2011 law that sought to limit the powers of students and administrative staff.

That earlier law proved highly controversial and triggered huge student protests. However, parliamentarians approved it by a large majority and academics saw it as a positive step in reducing the power of political parties over university appointments. "Since the 1980s, university administrations have been voted, not on merit or administrative prowess, but on party credentials," Synolakis says. In effect, he maintains, the latest reform—due to be voted on by Parliament within the next few weeks—will "move Greek higher education back about 30 years." Other scientists are similarly critical. Mathematician Thanasis Fokas of the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom describes the reform as "a step backwards," pointing to, among other things, its removal of a cap on the length of time a student can take to complete his or her studies. He adds that it also scraps electronic voting in university elections, which, he says, may allow students to steal ballot boxes and intimidate voters, as they have done in the past.

The new law also seeks to change the composition and functions of the National Council for Research and Technology, an 11-member panel that advises the government on the organization and funding of research. This, too, has proved controversial. The then-members of the council tendered their resignations on 4 March in a letter to Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, claiming that Fotakis had told the press a week earlier that the council was "illegal."

The chair of the now disbanded council, Joseph Sifakis, a computer scientist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, claims that the government is getting rid of the council because it disliked a number of reforms that it had proposed regarding the pooling of groups from universities and research centers, increasing collaboration between universities and industry, and reducing corruption in the distribution of European funds.

Fotakis denies saying that the panel was "illegal." He says instead that changes to the council proposed last year by the previous administration created a "legal vacuum" that may have affected the smooth running of the country's research centers. The new law, he says, is designed to rectify this anomaly and allow researchers easier access to E.U. "structural funds," designed to boost economic growth in poorer regions. Fotakis adds that more comprehensive legislation will follow to "fully reflect our ideas and policies for research."