A line of people in white coat queuing in front of Valencia’s train station is quite an unusual sight. Yet, this scene was not part of a movie rehearsal. Rather, it was reported in prime time news on Spanish television, on 19th December 2012. This action was part of a scientists’ protest taking place in 20 cities in Spain. This initiative included releasing balloons at Madrid’s Complutense University and using banners to block the traffic in Barcelona’s main streets. These examples reflect how scientists are increasingly deploying activists’ techniques to fight back the effects of the recession on research. This trend is particularly developed in Southern European countries, which are among the hardest hit by austerity.

The protest in Spain was called by the Open Letter for Science movement (Carta Abierta por la Ciencia). Since early 2012, this initiative has brought together scientific societies, unions, university rectors, and researchers’ associations, in an effort to save Spanish science from the estimated 40% budget cuts imposed since 2009. “We couldn’t keep our arms crossed while we saw our government eat our seed corn”, says Amaya Moro Martín, the astrophysicist at Madrid’s Centre for Astrobiology who initiated the movement. Moro explains that the movement is not just a reaction to the crisis. “We ask for more flexibility, efficiency and transparency, to make Spain’s research system more competitive,” she says, “the solution is not destroying all we have.”

By comparison, blogging and debate events are the protest tools preferred by Italian scientists. One of the most active collective of scientists is called ROARS (Return on academic research). It has been publishing a science policy web site since September 2011. With nearly three million visits, this portal has proven popular. The initiative was triggered by the university reform carried on by Silvio Berlusconi’s government in 2010. “We were tired of the picture of corruption in academia and low productivity of Italian research promoted by mainstream newspapers: a false picture, built on purpose to justify a punitive reform,” says Francesco Sylos Labini, a physicist at the National Research Center in Rome, and an editor of Roars. As a means to provide concrete solutions to the Italian predicament, Roars launched an academic journal about evaluation and research policies, in March 2013.

In parallel, scientists in Greece—the hardest hit among European country—have been organised in the Association of Greek Researchers (AGR) since the early 90s. “The association became a national interlocutor then, when it introduced the notion of a cohesive tertiary research and education area”, says its current chairman, Loukas Dimitris, a physicist at the Institute of Nuclear and Particle Physics in Athens. AGR took part in rallies again salary cuts in September 2012. “Scientists have become more involved after the crisis, but unfortunately not more effective,” he says, “what prevails in Greece today is the tendency to privatise the entire public research system.” More recently, other movements have got organised such as the Initiative of non-appointed Faculty Members of Greek Universities representing the qualms of elected academics who, in the past three years, have failed to be appointed, such as Varvara Trachana.

The historic brain drain suffered by many Southern European countries is becoming another opportunity for scientific activism. It has taken the form of lobbying. For example, in 2008, young Portuguese researchers in the UK founded the association PARSUK (Portuguese Association of Researchers and Students in the UK). “We want to use knowledge gathered abroad to implement new approaches to research in Portugal,” says David Tomaz, president of PARSUK and an immunologist at Imperial College London, UK. PARSUK’s complaints made the Portuguese government scale back cuts to fellowships that pay for PhD studies in the UK. The experience of these association has triggered the creation of a set of others with similar objectives: the Society of Spanish Researchers in the United Kingdom (SRUK/CERU), created  in June 2011, the Society of Spanish Researchers in the Federal Republic of Germany (CERFA), founded in June 2012, and the Association of Italian Scientists in the United Kingdom (AIS-UK)  about to be established.

Scientists-activists are mostly unsatisfied with politicians’ response to their actions. For example, Moro says that “the [Spanish] government is ignoring all our requests.” Sylos Labini hopes his organisation has “opened a breach into a wall of commonplaces”. Several national governments do not feel compelled to invest in science in a context in which the European Union is pressing for reducing public spending, and is cutting its own research budget.


Mail to Disseminate

Email subject line: Have your say on how to continue to do research in times of austerity

Email body:

Dear Colleague,
Austerity has taken its toll and disturbed research cycles across Europe. Particularly affected are scientists from Southern Europe. Find out first-hand how scientists confronted to austerity deal with it in Greece, Spain, Italy and Portugal, in a new Special Issue of the Euroscientist. It is the journal of Euroscience, the European grassroots organisation of scientists across disciplines and countries.
The Euroscientist is the first pan-European magazine for scientists and by scientists. This means that it will give you a voice to share your own solutions to the situation we, as scientists, find ourselves in.
In this issue, we analyse the situation of how many of our colleagues in the labs, who were forced to emigrate, and we also have the stories of those who decided to stay. You will hear from researchers sharing their experience of navigating the troubled waters of recession, when it comes to maintaining a seemingly steady research career path.
Problems identified in Spain, Italy, Portugal and Greece underlined the vital need for a public debate, beyond Southern European borders.  This is the goal of this special issue: to focus the wider European science community’s attention on how to solve research issues across Europe.
So, please, join in and take part to this citizen initiative. Tell us your opinion as a practicing scientist. Where does the system need to be fixed? Do we need to revisit the fundamental basis of research in Europe? Its objectives? Its funding schemes? Or even to find new ways of ring-fencing scientists’ time for research?
If you want decision makers hear what you have to say, then speak your mind, don’t be shy. Share your views by e-mailing editor@euroscience.org.

Sabine Louët
The Euroscientist
Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/euroscientist
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Euroscientist
Enhanced version of the magazine by Noowit: http://www.noowit.com/euroscientist

Please help us stimulate the debate around research in Europe further by supporting the Euroscientist at: www.euroscientist.com/support-us
Don’t forget to have a look at how our animators found a solution to help get out of the mess in which European scientists are stuck!
Power up the voice of the scientific crowd: see and share the video!

However, the unprecedented mobilisation of Southern European scientists may have forever changed their relationship with policy makers. The seed may be invisible now, but it will likely flourish in the future.

Michele Catanzaro (Pubblicato su Eurosceintist 15.4.2013)

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