segunda-feira, 7 de julho de 2014


A Portuguese colleague (who has good reasons to remain anonymous) has brought to our attention some very important and worrisome recent events/developments pertaining to research funding in Portugal and Europe, which are described below. Academics in Europe (and also outside Europe) wil do well to pay close attention to these developments.


This post serves as a warning, and a plea for help, to academics around Europe.

The Portuguese Science Foundation, FCT, i.e. the Portuguese governmental agency responsible for the funding and assessment of national research, has recently announced the results of the last evaluation of the national research units in all scientific areas. Research funding in Portugal, even in the humanities, comes under the heading "science". In a shift from previous reviews, FCT appointed the European Science Foundation, ESF, for this review. ESF has been, in their own words, "focusing on the responsible winding down of its traditional research instruments and the transfer of policy activities to Science Europe." From now on, ESF will be dedicated to "science management" and to "quality peer review". It is unclear, from their site, whether ESF will continue to exist after 2015.

ESF was founded in 1974 and played an important role in the promotion of research in all academic areas across Europe, promoting collaborative research for instance through European collaborative projects (EUROCORES projects, involving researchers from at least 4 European countries), exploratory workshops (to support research into new lines of inquiry), and also conducted peer review. In the past, ESF has allowed researchers to define their own research questions, and apply for funding for self-defined projects.  Now, however, this is coming to an end.

Miguel Seabra, the president of the Portuguese FCT, is also the new president of Science Europe, a new distinct organization dedicated to lobbying for science in the European research area. Since Miguel Seabra took office as president of FCT in 2012, there were drastic changes to the funding of research in Portugal. For instance, there were dramatic cuts to the number of PhD grants, post-doctoral fellowships, and 5-year research contracts. This took place in spite of the fact that, as the Portuguese minister for Science and Education, Nuno Crato, claims, the funds available at FCT have not decreased. In the humanities, the cuts in number of grants and fellowships were around 35% for doctoral grants and 65% for postdoctoral grants (The Conselho Nacional de Ciência e Tecnologia issued a statement of concern after this -- the official link to the statement in the site of the Portuguese government has been deleted). This overturns a continued investment in science and research in Portugal in the past 20 years (or more) that had brought the percentage of PhD's in Portugal closer to the European average, and drastically increased the number of Portuguese international publications, number of citations and patents. As an illustration, in the last call for individual PhD grants, only 5 were granted to philosophy PhD candidates in the whole country.

For the recent review, FCT appointed ESF to assess the Portuguese research units (institutes, laboratories and research centres).  It is probable that this was done as a way to protect FCT from accusations of bias, and to promote ESF in its new role in European research assessment. The results of this review exercise are appalling, partly because of factual errors in some of the reviews, but mostly because of the new policy to concentrate all the funds for research in a few institutions, and cutting funding from all the remaining. The errors and mistakes in the review process transform this bad policy into a tragedy for Portuguese research.

ESF acknowledges that their once “Standing Committees of leading scientists” were “disbanded at the end of 2012”, and were replaced by "5 smaller Scientific Review Groups (SRGs)" (here is the Humanities SGR). The results of this change are visible in the current assessment. I will illustrate the result with some data that, in the meanwhile, has been made available by Portuguese colleagues in sociology, mathematics, physics and philosophy.

The results of the review of Mathematics and Physics research units are prima facie absurd. For instance, the Centre for Nuclear Physics of the University of Lisbon will have no funding after the present review. But they have the highest number of papers per researcher (an average of 21,06) and the highest number of citations per researcher (average of 344,12). However, other physics research centres with considerably less publications and citations are selected for funding, whereas the Nuclear Physics group is not. After this, several scientists have released a formal statement to the international community, “Portuguese Government Shuts Down Half the Research Units in the Country”. As they say, “Of these soon to be extinct research units, 1904 researchers in 71 units will be simply left out of the funding system in the period 2015-2020. The remainder 3283 researchers in 83 research units will have access to an extremely limited amount of funding, ranging from 5000€/year (for units with less than 40 members and no laboratorial equipment) to 40000€ (for laboratorial units with more than 81 members), which in practice implies vegetative operation and short-term shutdown. Most of these units had competitive productivity scores at the international level, as shown in a study requested by FCT to Elsevier, and the results of the proposed evaluation are in stark contrast with it.”

Another illustrative case is given by CIES-IUL, a sociology research centre, that have made available the various documents relative to their recent assessment by ESF. In their rebuttal of ESF’s review, they point out several of the factual errors and biases in their review report, for instance “reviewer RW93317 confuses CIES-IUL (the research centre) with ISCTE-IUL (the university to which it belongs), also believing that it is part of Lisbon University (another university) – two serious factual errors that provoke misunderstandings”. The leader of CIES-IUL, João Sebastião, has stated in a recent interview, “The FCT decided, no one knows why, to choose a more or less moribund foundation, which had never made such an assessment and hired experts that nobody knows".

The final illustrative case concerns the review of philosophy research units. For instance,CFUL, the Philosophy Centre of the University of Lisbon, was considered “good” by ESF without the possibility to pass to the second stage of the review process. This means that it is one of the many units that will receive limited funding, and is condemned to short-term shutdown. “Good” officially guarantees a basic funding, in their case of 15000 €/year, but it means short-term shutdown. The whole ranking is: Poor, Reasonable, Good, Very Good, Excellent and Exceptional. All centres that are 'Good' will face serious difficulties, and will in fact have serious troubles in securing extra funds (projects, PhD students, post-docs, etc). Only those with at least “Very Good” will be allowed to proceed to the second stage of the review process, and to hope to get more funding.

CFUL is a very diverse research centre, and it has played a unique role in filling gaps in philosophical research in Portugal (it seems that it plans to release its review documents soon).Although in philosophy and the humanities we cannot rely on citation and number of publications in the same way that physics does, there are several ways to assess the quality of researchers and their institutions. CFUL’s members pursue diverse lines of research. One of these is the sub-group LanCog, who edits the open-access journal Disputatio, which is the best-ranked peer-reviewed philosophy journal in Portugal (INT2 in the ERIH list of ESF; B in the ERA list of ARC). The funding that CFUL will receive can’t maintain its basic infrastructure, let alone keep Disputatio running, nor the other journals edited by CFUL. Also, after quickly checking the recent publications of CFUL's (from 2013 onwards), one can count over 60 recent or forthcoming publications, of which almost 30 are in top 'A' journals (according to ESF’s own ERIH list, or ARC’s ERA list). LanCog members alone have recent publications in 8 out of these 35 journals). The remaining publications at CFUL include also articles in volumes edited with Oxford University Press or Springer. CFUL is also publishing, for instance, the first ever Portuguese edition of the complete works of Aristotle, in cooperation with various other institutions, overcoming serious limitations of editions of the Classics in Portuguese. This is a completely outstanding result for any philosophy research centre at least in continental Europe, and no other research centre in Portugal has a comparable output. Ironically, CFUL is also the only research unit in Portugal to host an ESF EUROCORES project. It is surprising, to say the least, that “quality peer reviewers” fail to recognize and to value this kind of output, and fail to recognize the tremendous amount of work that was involved in creating a research Centre capable of achieving these results when, 25 years ago, nothing comparable had ever been achieved in Portugal.

All this is seriously alarming on several levels: not just for the future of philosophy, but also for all sciences and humanities in Portugal. Half the research centres in the country, including CFUL, will be forced to close if nothing is done. This is also alarming for European research in general, if the various national funding organizations decide to rely on ESF to provide "quality peer review", and the current review process is indicative of what to expect. Finally, this is worrying for the European research area, since Miguel Seabra, the president of FCT and future president of Science Europe, is responsible for the recent change in research policy in Portugal.

The most urgent thing to be done is something very concrete: to prevent the consequences of this review process from developing. A small political party (Livre) in Portugal has recently suggested: 

1. That the research units that had been assessed as Excellent or Very Good in the past should not be prevented from passing to the second stage (that allows eligibility for further funding) in the current review exercise, unless there is a demonstration of serious misconduct in the past, such as breach of contract objectives, or equivalent.
2. That the research units that earn a rating of Good should get funds that ensure the continuity of their operations.
3. That appeal procedures where the current review panels do not take any part should be swiftly implemented.

This seems to be reasonable and the least that can be asked at this stage.

FCT is about to undergo an external audit and review. It would be good if this meant that both foundations, the European Science Foundation and the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology, were open to follow international recommendations to reverse current policy and practice.

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