Research chief pledges to end cliques’ rule

Dimitris Nanopoulos, member of the Athens Academy, has been made the new president of the National Research and Technology Council (ESET). A distinguished scientist, one of the world’s leading physicists, he is taking over a sector that is extremely important for the country’s economy, but also extremely weak. Funds earmarked for the research sector are just one-fifth of the average for the European Union. Nanopoulos appears determined to weed out those who have undeservedly succeeded in getting funding. In this interview with Kathimerini, he emphasized the need for more regular audits of all research programs. «Every American university has independent committees to carry out regular audits of research activity. Why doesn’t Greece?» he asked. He openly deplored the mentality of certain researchers who believed themselves to be «above the law,» promising to do his best to do away with this kind of behavior. Yet he also talked about Greeks’s penchant for achievement, the untapped potential for research in Europe and the American economic miracle. Nanopoulos claims not to have political ambitions, saying that scientific work is his «vice.» Were you surprised to be nominated head of ESET by the prime minister? Yes, in the sense that I had not been accustomed to proposals of this kind from the Greek State, although it was not completely unexpected, since Mr Karamanlis has nominated other people outside his own political arena for public office, such as Karolos Papoulias for president of the republic. Karamanlis has asked Greek scientists abroad to come home to work. Are these invitations enough? You have a point, but for many years my complaint has been that I have never heard a prime minister use the word «research» – something that I believe is a fundamental component of a modern state. The fact that Karamanlis was present at the first session of this council means that this government is interested in making a new beginning here. Of course, we have to go beyond ceremonies and bright lights. When the lights go out, the work must begin, and it must take place far from every form of influence. Research and technology are national issues and should not be linked to party mechanisms or interests. The prime minister also mentioned meritocracy, not exactly a feature of Greek reality. I have been struggling all my life for meritocracy in all sectors of scientific research, whether in the humanities or the sciences. In developed countries, research is subjected to objective criteria. Things are not exactly done the same way as in Greece. If you have obtained funds for the previous five years, you have to submit a detailed account of where those funds have gone, whether papers have been published or presented at international conferences. I am not saying something new, this is what is done in Europe, in the US, throughout the civilized world. For example, at every American university, research activities are regularly monitored by independent committees. I have never been able to understand why this is not the case in Greece. There is something else which has to do with the superior attitude of some of my colleagues. For example, once, when I was on the scientific council of the Democritos National Center for Scientific Research, while we were carrying out an internal evaluation, I was surprised by the way some people were talking. One day, I almost exploded. I was so upset that I threatened to throw an ashtray at a colleague’s head. I won’t go into details, but that gentleman would walk into the room where we were meeting and look down his nose at us as if asking who we were to judge him. Unfortunately, this mentality exists in Greece. There are Greek biologists who think they are Watson and physicists who think that are at least as good as Einstein. Acting this way because you have connections is Fifth World behavior and it will end. We are all subject to judgment. You are taking over a sector that has many organizational problems and almost no involvement by the private sector. We have good raw material, which is the Greek passion for research. Brains don’t suddenly change when you cross the border into Greece; the brain’s neural connections don’t change. It is simply that abroad we have an environment that is better organized, which helps us to further scientific research. So the framework has to change here, clear rules of the game must be established. Research work produced will be judged by foreigners, people who have distinguished themselves in the international scientific community. We can’t be going off to fish tavernas at the weekend and then writing up evaluation reports as we please. Nor will the evaluations be filed away, as they are now. This is where we will begin, by stopping these cliques from functioning as they do, by having better coordination, by getting in touch with private initiatives which will lead to production. I am sure there are Greek investors interested in research. I also know there are many Greek Americans keen to invest here. Greece belongs to the European Union, which means that a researcher with an interesting idea can get support from European firms and make a great contribution to our country. The removal of borders and globalization are not only negative things, but things to be exploited. Greece is destined to decline without direct links between research, technology and production. There is a gap between Europe and the US in that sector… Much of what applies to Greece in the sector of research, perhaps apart from the tendency to find fault or be envious, also applies to the European Union. We talk about the American dream, but this only began just before World War II, when many important European scientists settled in the USA. We are used to criticizing the Americans, but in reality they are an open society. They accepted those people into their midst, gave them the resources to produce. When we talk about the American dream in the economy, we are mainly talking about high technology and its link with production. After all, who were the Americans? They were cowboys. But what they did was to support education and basic scientific research. Meanwhile, if even a couple of dollars go missing from their research funds, there is a great fuss. They are very strict. So no one dares even think about abusing the system. We need meritocracy, then, so that no one can say «friends got the funds.» And control, so we know where the money is going. Do you believe in the dynamic being mobilized within Greece? Absolutely, but there is a strange network which, although connected to power centers, is independent of politics and the parties. It is a… clique, if you like. And it is not only in science and technology. The same situation exits in other fields, such as the arts and music. For decades we have been seeing the same faces in the spotlight. There is a system that says, «He is one of ours, we can’t touch him.»