Research for Development

JAN-FEB 2017|BY RAYMOND MATERA
Dr. Dimitris Nanopoulos, one of the world’s most illustrious physicists, a professor at Texas A&M University, and a member of the Academy of Athens, spoke to Raymond Matera about how Greece can—and should—implement a comprehensive and strategic national R&D framework.

Tell us about the R&D framework in Greece. Has it been effective?

Well, the R&D framework in Greece can be best described as lacking cohesion. There has been, over the years, an institutional framework that has not been stable, consistent, or comprehensive, and that has not had a long-term strategy. So naturally it has not been effective.

What kind of framework is needed?

A country must have institutions that are, first and foremost, independent. They must be established with a common, long-term national goal that is agreed, to a greater extent, across the political and social spectrum, with members who are not driven by political objectives. This way policies, programs and operations can proceed with cohesion, institutional memory and with scientific integrity.

Has Greece suffered from political pressure?

Certainly. We must first realize that politicians are not scientists—they must rely on scientists for guidance. They must rely on advice that is aligned with the goal of good science that meets the nation’s objectives. And the nation’s objectives must be created based on the assets and attributes of its scientific community. And this should be true of many national programs, not just science and R&D. Once political pressure and political influence are removed from our national R&D policy then we have an opportunity to truly advance.

Should Greece follow the practices of other countries, say the USA?

Greece should use the practices of other countries as a basis for good decision making but, without a doubt, should forge its own policies, programs and institutions based on its competitive advantages, human assets, and overall goals. Greece is not the United States. In fact, Greece is closer to Israel in size, geography, and resources. And just as Israel has a strong Diaspora, both in the United States and throughout the world, so does Greece. So in that case it makes sense to create programs and policies that can build into its strategy a cooperative element of working with Greeks anywhere in the world, who have a desire and willingness to work with and on behalf of Greece in win-win partnerships.

Look, if you go to a university such as MIT, to use one example, you find an overwhelming and disproportionate number of Greeks among the faculty. This is a national asset of immeasurable value. A policy framework that recognizes such an asset can incorporate partnership agreements, sharing agreements, learning agreements, and financial agreements that are beneficial, both to the foreign institution and to Greece. All we have to do is examine how Israel has turned itself from a scientific backwater into a global leader in a matter of two decades or so. There is no reason Greece cannot do the same—and more. And there are other countries that have carried out similar strategic plans with great success. But as I said, this requires a national agreement among the political and social spectrum that is made in the interests of the country, not of special interests, whatever they may be.

Does such a strategy carry multiplier effects?

Many. First, in purely financial terms Greece is losing billions by failing to implement a national, long-term R&D strategy and plan. The amount of money that Greece could earn from high-end research projects is significant. Then, of course, the return on this investment can be seen in high value-added products and services sold throughout the world by the entrepreneurial  ecosystem it creates. If universities and research institutes have agreements with scientists and developers to reap the rewards in revenues, such as with stock sharing, then the university can then self fund further research, purchase equipment, build facilities, and invest in its own ventures.

In addition, brain drain is likely prevented, employment is increased, State revenues are increased, the tax base widens and, and this is no small matter, the quality of life and level of life satisfaction increases. The spin off into other fields grows exponentially, from real estate development to better local infrastructure.

Have universities focused too much on the financial aspect of R&D in places such as the United States?

Not in my personal experience but the issue should be that Greece can alter and tailor its institutional framework that best suits its social and academic environment. Certainly science should never be bought like a commodity and I am against this, emphatically. On the other hand, scientists and the private sector have the opportunity to work together for the betterment of all members of society. It is the challenge of educated and intelligent minds to find the balance between scientific integrity, the needs of society, such as in healthcare, and the needs of the market. As we know, today’s personal electronic devices have their basis in pure scientific research that is one century old.

Clearly then, Greece has the opportunity to advance in this area.

Yes, without a doubt. Greece has intellectual assets that are, and I don’t exaggerate, unique. It would be a great loss to miss this opportunity. Greece did not participate in the Renaissance, the Enlightenment or the Industrial Revolution. Be that as it may. But today, it has the opportunity to participate in the IT/digital revolution that is changing the world at a rapid pace. And Greece is well placed to participate, even as a leader. Greece, after leading the world and being its greatest innovator, in ancient times, has become a follower. This can reverse.

Rather than focus on the IT/digital revolution per se, isn’t it important to focus on the mindset of leader/innovator, so that change occurs in every sector, regardless of whether it is private or public, scientific or government administration?

Absolutely. And one of the most important ways to do this is to begin the process of de-politicization among our institutions. In this regard I have a sense of optimism in the younger generation, who have seen the disastrous effects of special interests leading the way. It is clear that when everyone is allowed to participate, everyone can benefit across the board. The more sharing there is among stakeholders, the better it is for everyone. This is the meaning of healthy competition, especially when leaders encourage innovation that has national advantages.

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