Researchers taking samples from the Evrotas River in Greece. The project was suspended because the group lacked money to buy gas.

Researchers taking samples from a river in Greece. Some sampling trips had to be postponed because of the cash crunch.

Hellenic Centre for Marine Research

Greek researchers worry as crucial referendum looms

With their banks closed and the economy grinding to a halt, Greek voters will go to the polls on Sunday in what could be a crucial moment in international negotiations over the country’s crushing debt. Greek scientists are watching the referendum nervously, because it could herald a Greek departure from the Eurozone or even the European Union itself—a devastating prospect, many say, because it would imperil E.U. funding streams that help keep Greek science alive. “This would be a total nightmare,” says Babis Savakis, the director of the Biomedical Sciences Research Center "Alexander Fleming" in Vari.

But Costas Fotakis, Greece's vice minister for research & innovation, sought to downplay such concerns in an interview with ScienceInsider. The Greek government has no intention of leaving the euro, Fotakis says, and “even in the hypothetical case that Greece decides to leave the Eurozone, Greece will be able to apply for E.U. grants as an E.U. member.”

Like most other people in Greece, scientists have suffered under the austerity-driven cuts to government budgets—and so has their ability to work. University salaries have been cut by 30% to 40% since 2010, and research centers are receiving less than half their previous support from the government. Some centers have not gotten any government funding at all this year. “Greek science is not well,” says George Christophides of Imperial College London, who last year helped review the status of two universities there. “It’s like a freefall.”

The closure of Greek banks this week has added to the troubles. A membership payment to CERN, for example, has been delayed. This week, academic access to many international online journals was cut off because the government has failed to provide funds for subscriptions. “This is another side effect of the crisis that hits Greek researchers quite hard,” says ichthyologist Maria Stoumboudi of the Hellenic Centre for Marine Research (HCMR) in Anavissos. With the banks shut, the Fleming Center cannot buy antibodies and other research supplies, Savakis says. Researchers at HCMR postponed field work because they were afraid they wouldn't be able to withdraw enough cash to pay for travel expenses that can't be paid by credit card. “At the moment, it’s planning for next week only,” Stoumboudi says. “We really don’t know what will happen. We're hoping for the best."

In Sunday's referendum, Greeks will vote on whether to accept bailout terms set by the International Monetary Fund, the European Union, and the European Central Bank. But the creditors say that offer no longer stands—a sign of the political confusion surrounding the issue. Thus, many observers view the vote as an indication of whether Greece should stay in the euro or leave it. “In reality, people will vote yes or no for Europe,” says Achilleas Mitsos, an economist and science policy expert at the University of the Aegean, Mytilini.

An exit from the euro could lead to financial chaos, a difficult transition back to the drachma, and further government austerity. Worse, it could potentially mean that Greece must leave the European Union. This could cut off so-called structural funds from the European Union, which have provided the bulk of stable support to research institutes in Greece. (If the Fleming institute loses these funds, Savakis says, it would have to stop 60% of its research and likely lay off 75 of its 155 employees.) In addition, Greek scientists might not be eligible to apply for grants through the European Union’s Horizon 2020 program—which have provided another large slice of their funding—or participate in research networks. “We are deeply integrated into the European system,” says Nektarios Tavernarakis, director of the Institute of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology in Heraklion. “These links would be severed.”

As a non-E.U. member, Greece might have the option to buy into Horizon 2020 as an "associated country," however, through an agreement with the European Commission, like Norway, Turkey, Israel, and nine other countries have done. But it would have to find the money somewhere.

There is no precedent or even a legal pathway for an exit from the euro, so for the moment, the impact on research is mostly guesswork. “Sorry, but we won't enter into such speculations,” a spokesperson for the Commission's Directorate-General for Research and Innovation says.

Fotakis says there is no reason to believe that Greece would have to leave the European Union, which means that Horizon 2020 grants and structural funds will remain available, just like they are to other E.U. members outside the Eurozone. But a return to the drachma would mean supplies and equipment ordered from abroad would get more expensive for Greek researchers, he admits. “When this crisis is overcome, when we come to calmer water, then I’m confident we’ll take off,” he says.

Mitsos, a former director-general for research at the European Commission who knows Brussels inside and out, is not so sanguine about a departure from the euro, and he will be watching nervously as results of the referendum arrive on Sunday evening. Says Mitsos: “I’m extremely worried.”

Update, 7 July 6.15 PM: A few small errors were corrected in this story; a sentence was added to the quote from Maria Stoumboudi.