15 September 2022 – Nektarios Tavernarakis is chairman of the Foundation for Research and Technology – Hellas, Heraklion, professor at the University of Crete, vice president of the European Research Council and chairman of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology. He spoke to EMBO about the life sciences in Greece.
As a member state of the EMBC, Greece, through EMBO, has supported life scientists across Europe since 1972. Could you talk about this commitment and your involvement?
EMBO provides opportunities for Greek life scientists and clinical researchers to network with other scientists and participate in EMBO Courses & Workshops. Many of these happen in Greece and allow the local scientific community to interact with top scientists from all over the world. This is important for a country that is on the periphery of Europe and far away from centres of excellence. The EMBO fellowships are also important: many people from Greece have been EMBO Postdoctoral Fellows abroad, and there are some incoming fellows, too.
I have just been appointed as an EMBC Delegate. I am using my initial time to catch up with the processes of EMBO, EMBC, and EMBL, so that I can serve best. I have been an EMBO Member for many years, having organized several courses and workshops and served on the Fellowship Committee.
In February 2022, Greece has joined the initiative increasing participation in the EMBO Programmes throughout Europe. Could you comment on the new activities?
Greece has been through very rough times in the past years. Now the situation is improving, and we are almost back to normal, but you cannot change geography. Greece is on the outskirts of Europe, which means that it is difficult to attract talented scientists. EMBC has taken the right decision to include Greece in this group of countries, because this allows Greece to become more competitive and attract more talent.
What are the current trends in the life sciences landscape of Greece?
Greece is paying a lot of attention to health- and medical-related research, which has become even more important during the pandemic. The biomedical research field, other areas related to biotechnology, and the agro-food industry need to be reinforced. Greece also needs to invest in emerging fields such as artificial intelligence and nanotechnology, which are driving the so called Fourth Industrial Revolution, and keep up with the pace of other countries in precision medicine and gene therapy.
What opportunities are available for life scientists in Greece?
Biomedical research is quite advanced. There are several institutes and research centres, for example the Hellenic Pasteur Institute, the Biomedical Sciences Research Center “Alexander Fleming”, and the Biomedical Research Foundation of the Academy of Athens in Athens, the Foundation for Research and Technology here in Heraklion, and other institutions in Thessaloniki and Patras. There are also universities with biology departments and medical schools, such as here at the University of Crete.
A lot of opportunities exist for young researchers in universities and research centres, and for people who want to become principal investigators or professors. There are openings, but not as many as we would like. There is a high demand by Greeks who are abroad and want to come back.
Are there challenges?
Funding of research needs to be improved. Greece needs to increase its support for science. By prioritizing and supporting frontier research and science, Greece can increase its international competitiveness substantially, as well as its participation in international funding schemes. We need more funding for researchers, instruments, and ways to fund research throughout Greece in a transparent and meritorious way. We are developing this now: there is a new agency, the Hellenic Foundation for Research and Innovation, that has been modeled after the ERC.
Another challenge is research infrastructure. Greece has invested in generating state-of-the-art facilities, but the national programme has ended. To update our aging infrastructure, we need more support. We also need to be affiliated with the European research infrastructures, for example for bioimaging, and be able to participate in the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility, CERN, and others. Our government needs to support the relevant fields to allow the participation of the Greek scientific community.
What advice would you give to an early-career scientist considering a career in Greece?
It is really important to be passionate about what you do. Research is not always easy, but there will be moments in which you will feel the satisfaction of discovery and contribution to human knowledge. This is very rewarding, but you need to be able to weather the storm. If you are persistent and patient, you will have success, even in suboptimal conditions in a country like Greece, where a researcher is not as well supported as in other countries.