Greece should be wary of short-changing its universities to balance the budget or it could mortgage its future

Broadcasters have gone to town this summer, dusting off tired clichés of Greek tragedies, budgetary odysseys and pyrrhic victories. But in a country indebted to the tune of €320 billion (£223 billion), where the unemployment rate hovers around 25% and hospitals are running short of medicines, tragedy seems like the right word. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the fate of the countries’ universities and scientists tends to go unmentioned. The nation has bigger fish to fry, right?

But the Greek government should be paying closer attention to this important demographic. Since the start of the financial crisis around 400,000 people have left Greece – almost 5% of the population. There are also indications that many of those leaving are the brightest and best; one survey suggests that 120,000 skilled professionals such as engineers, doctors and scientists have left to look for work elsewhere. A European University Institute study of migrants from countries particularly hard-hit by the Eurozone crisis, such as Ireland, Italy and, of course, Greece, found that almost 90% had a university degree. Of those with degrees, half also had a masters and 11% a PhD.

The problems of such ‘brain drain’ have been known since the term was coined by the Royal Society in 1963. Back then, Europe was losing its top scientists to the new global scientific and economic superpower, the US. Fears were growing that the UK would be left behind in this ‘scientific revolution’, as the premier powers of the time crafted new science-based industries that would boost their nations’ prosperity. The link between science and technology and prosperity is now well established, but Greece’s current predicament leaves it at risk of having to mortgage its future to balance the budget.

The fact that public funding for higher education in Greece has been halved since 2009 and that, according to the Greek Rector’s Conference, universities haven’t received a cent of public money since the start of 2015 should be an obvious sign for concern. Of course the austerity axe must fall somewhere, but a country’s academic base can quickly wither if the money dries up as researchers leave, students look for work elsewhere and facilities moulder – and once it is lost, it becomes much harder to regain.

But it needn’t be all doom and gloom. While Greece will find it tough to support its universities, there are ways to put its research base on life support so that it can be revived when the good times return. One study recommends harnessing the good will of scientists who have left to help set up networks and collaborations. These can help to sustain the nation’s science programme, while leaving the door open for those who wish to return when the country’s fortunes look up.

The privations that starve and constrain research and education in Greece make all of Europe a smaller place. Faced with the difficult task of balancing creditors’ demands and funding the basics, the Greek government should remember what one of its most famous sons had to say: ‘There is only one good, knowledge, and one evil,?ignorance.’