Thomas Maloutas, General Secretary for Research and Technology, Ministry of Education, Greece: Exclusive Interview
The Greek government is using science and technology to help restore its ailing economy. Stav Dimitropoulos meets Thomas Maloutas, the Ministry of Education’s General Secretary for Research and Technology – whose first task is to stem the ‘brain drain’ that’s taken around 200,000 qualified scientists and technicians overseas since 2009
Greece is suffering from a huge ‘brain drain’ in science and technology, says Thomas Maloutas – and it’s not an easy challenge to address. “Braking the Brain Drain would violate one of the basic pillars of the European Union: that of the free movements of persons and the free exchange of human capital within its realms,” he explains. “On top of that, highly skilled individuals are able to earn three or four times the salary they would earn in Greece or Spain or Portugal, and should be free to aim high.”
However, Maloutas – who is General Secretary for Research and Technology in Greece’s Ministry of Education – is clear that “there is a problem. Countries like Switzerland lose brain, but gain it back in higher amounts. In stark contrast, the circulation of brain in countries of the South is linear: brain only heads upwards.” Although the Greek “brain haemorrhage” has declined a little since its 2012 peak, emigration rates among skilled scientists and technicians are still three times higher than they were before Greece’s economy hit the buffers in 2009.
In part, Maloutas’s answer is to find ways of replacing those departing professionals with fresh transfusions of skills from elsewhere. “Initially, a balance must be struck through an open-door policy, by replacing some of the now-departing Greek researchers and scientists with researchers and scientists from countries that are in turn ‘exporting’ brain – the neighboring Balkan ones, for a start,” he says. “But this does not mean we have given up the fight to offer opportunities and incentives to the best Greek scientists to live and thrive in Greece.”
Maloutas confirms that his ministry is working on legislative reforms and new policies in a bid to help Greek science and research “take the corner”. And the general secretary is well qualified to identify policies that have worked elsewhere – for he only joined government in April 2015, after a long career in academic and research institutions around Europe. He remains a Professor of Human Geography and Thematic Cartography at Athens’s Harokopio University, and has previously worked as a Visiting Professor at the Institute d’ Études Politiques de Paris and a Visiting Researcher at the ESPACE workshop, University Avignon et des Pays de Vaucluse. In his role as an expert in socioeconomic classification standards, he’s also taken jobs at EUROSTAT, the University of Essex, and France’s statistics institutes INSEE and the CNIS.
One key strategy for building and retaining scientific and technical expertise involves forming an organisation to fund and guide new projects. “A new law afoot is expected to lay the foundations for the creation of a Research and Technology Funding Institution in the footsteps of the National Science Foundation (NSF) of the US, or Germany’s Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft,” Maloutas explains. “The institution will be sponsored by EIB [European Investment Bank] funding combined with Greek national funds. We have good faith that the institution will retain sufficient numbers of highly-qualified scientists in Greece, as these funds will cover expenses for recruitment and scholarships.”
Maloutas also wants to tie academic research more closely to economic growth, whilst preserving its capacity for pure science and blue-sky thinking. A new legal framework for research will shape how the “sacred” institution of the university interfaces with business stakeholders, he says: “The ministry places heavy emphasis on entrepreneurship and is considering pre-seed funding for start-ups, but the roles between business partners and the university must be clearly defined. This will encourage a symbiotic – not an instrumental – relationship between companies, employers and the university. It will also discourage short-sighted policies that will devolve the university to only breeding grounds for industry.”
To protect the space for speculative and theoretical research, Maloutas’s department is working on a new law under which the European Investment Bank (EIB) will subsidise three quarters of the projects promoting blue skies research, highlighting the natural sciences and sheer scientific curiosity. This, he says, will provide an “antithetical” counterpart to the ongoing ‘Smart Specialisation’ programme – a set of integrated, place-based economic transformation plans funded by EU structural and investment funds.
Built to fit within the EU’s Europe 2020 growth strategy, this programme is developing national and regional research and innovation plans for the eight market sectors deemed most likely to benefit from new investment in science and R&D: agri-food; health & medicines; energy; environment & sustainable development; transportation; materials & construction; tourism, culture & creative industries; and ICT.
Crucially, these plans attempt to bring together innovators and the businesses able to commercialise new inventions: “A key process for designing and setting the priorities of a research and innovation strategy for Smart Specialisation is the entrepreneurial discovery process,” Maloutas comments. “Simply put, Smart Specialisation policymakers should include all types of players in the arena of innovation, such as business and technology competence centres, universities and public institutions, science and technology parks, business angels and venture capitalists, and civil society.”
One final, indispensable ally in the the Research and Technology unit’s attempt to look to the future is information technology. Bringing together its disparate records of government-funded research in a single State Aid Information System, Maloutas hopes to promote a much-needed transparency in the Greek public setor. “The research and technology sector counts 15 years of funded research, and the information about this activity cannot be found in one single computerised database, but in fragmented and often incompatible segments,” he comments. “We intend to computerise everything in public administration from now on.”
Rounding off the interview, Maloutas says that in the long run, legal and institutional reforms will produce better returns than a single-minded focus on cutting spending to fit ever-shrinking public budgets. “Over the period 2011-2014 the government imposed 40-50% cuts in scientific research funding,” he says. “We’ve tried to thwart this approach, starting by reversing the administrative employee layoffs. In fighting a crisis, you’re much better off adopting an aggressive rather than a reductive approach.”
This article was updated 12:34 GMT, 23 August 2016: This article has been changed to clarify that Thomas Maloutas is General Secretary for Research and Technology in Greece’s Ministry of Education, rather than head of a discrete department
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