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Life sciences in Portugal

Progress despite recession

 

Science in Portugal benefits from generous private donations but needs to provide long-term stability for individual researchers. The budget has remained stable, yet has to be distributed to a growing pool of researchers.

 

Bruno Silva-Santos

In 1998, when Bruno Silva-Santos left his home country to study for a PhD in the United Kingdom, he doubted he would ever come back. Portuguese science was not competitive internationally and did not hold much promise to young aspiring scientists. A few years later things looked entirely different. The Portuguese government increased the science budget, new institutes were founded, and new grant schemes introduced. In just one decade, spending on research and development in Portugal more than doubled reaching 1.5 percent of the Gross Domestic Product in 2010. The way was open for the young PhD scientist to come back to his home country and set up his first laboratory in the Lisbon-based Instituto de Medicina Molecular (IMM), one of the country’s top research institutes that will celebrate its tenth anniversary in 2013 (see also EMBOencounters issue 21). Silva-Santos applied for several national grants and was successful. An EMBO Installation Grant and Young Investigator Award received in 2007 and 2011, respectively, cemented his position as an outstanding group leader in Europe. In addition, in 2010 he received a prestigious Starting Grant from the European Research Council. Silva-Santos is one of 26 Portuguese investigators to have received an ERC grant to date.

The situation today has changed. Like many other European countries, Portugal was severely hit by the recession. Although the budget for science has remained stable, the same funds have to be distributed to twice as many researchers. In the boom years between 2005 and 2010, the number of full-time scientists in Portugal more than doubled to reach 46,000 people.

“The present funding situation is critical,” the 39-year-old scientist says. “A lot of good people came back to Portugal and established internationally competitive laboratories, but most of their projects – even if rated outstanding by the evaluation boards – are not financed anymore.” Although Portuguese government has remained committed to science, decreasing national revenue has also resulted in less spending on science infrastructure.

On the positive side, there is still an active scientific community with many foreign students, postdoctoral researchers and investigators. “Researchers in Portugal have enlarged their network of collaborations, making it more international,” Miguel Seabra, President of the Foundation for Science and Technology (FCT), one of the main grant-awarding agencies in Portugal, says. The number of publications with international co-authorship tripled between 2000 and 2010. And Portugal has more young PhD holders than the average in the European Union.

EMBO has contributed to the life sciences in Portugal in many ways. Ten Portuguese researchers have received EMBO Installation Grants since 2006 – a package of benefits including financial support for group leaders who set up a laboratory in their home country after working abroad. Several EMBO workshops and practical courses were held in Oeiras and Lisbon in the past two years, and at least two courses and workshops are planned for Portugal in 2014. “Portugal continues to be an attractive location for high-quality scientific meetings. Approximately 150 Portuguese researchers, several of whom were supported with EMBO travel grants, participated in our courses and workshops in recent years,” Anne-Marie Glynn, Head of EMBO Courses & Workshops, says.

Strong private sector.
One outstanding feature of the Portuguese scientific infrastructure is the strong presence of privately financed research centres. The latest example, the Champalimaud Research Centre for the Unknown in Lisbon, has the potential to become a world-class research institute. The centre was inaugurated in October 2010, and is gradually increasing its capacity to 500 researchers working with 100 physicians who see around 300 patients daily. It focuses on clinical research into cancer and basic research into neurosciences. The philanthropist behind the project, wealthy Portuguese businessman António Champalimaud, allocated a quarter of his wealth to medical research as part of his legacy.

Another influential private research centre is the Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciência of the Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian (named after its Armenian-born founder and philanthropist). In the last fifty years, the Institute has paved the way for many Portuguese scientists through its PhD programmes, fellowships and diverse educational initiatives.

The weak point of the country’s research infrastructure is an immature system that does not secure long-term stability for individual researchers. Outside academia, Portugal has one of the lowest levels of employment of PhD holders in Europe. Also, the intense public sector bureaucracy makes it difficult to put flexible funding schemes in place. “Providing solid, sustainable careers for the large pool of highly qualified graduate and postdoctoral researchers is key in the years to come,” Miguel Seabra says.

Bruno Silva-Santos remains optimistic about science in his home country. Judged by the multi-national character of his team, which consists of 14 young scientists from Sweden, France, Germany and other countries, Portugal still remains a destination of choice for predoctoral and postdoctoral researchers.