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Could Greece become prosperous again?

To counter austerity, the country needs investment in areas where Greeks have a competitive advantage

July 27, 2015 2:00AM ET

Many people have been misled to think of Greece as a poor country, good only for tourism and olive oil. Greece’s landscape is indeed beautiful, and its olives are delicious, but Greece’s global competitive edge is in science, education, technology and entrepreneurship. The problem is that the country has done little to foster this native talent.  

While Greeks make up less than 0.2 percent of the global population, they represent approximately 3 percent of the most influential (that is, most cited) scientists in the world. These great minds flourish mostly away from their native land. Greece has an astonishingly high 6.2 physicians per 1000 inhabitants, but thousands of Greek MDs have migrated to Germany and other countries lacking well-trained doctors. In computer science, seven of the 200 most-cited scientists worldwide are born and educated in Greece, but living elsewhere. Greece remains one of the top countries with regard to the proportion of its people attending university. Numerous Greeks feature as entrepreneur leaders in Silicon Valley, Wall Street and the City. Fifteen of the 100 most influential shipping industry people worldwide are Greek, again, mostly operating in other countries.

As I mentioned in my recent Dimitri Trichopoulos memorial lecture combining data from citation databases such as Google Scholar and from biographies and obituaries, among the 32 most-cited Greek scientists who had died by November 2014, only four died in Greece: one while fleeing to avoid being killed by his enemies, one by accident, one from cancer shortly after repatriation and one during vacation. If one could somehow count people not where they live but where their roots are, Greece may have been the leading hub for science, technology, innovation and entrepreneurship in Europe. Needless to say, this is not the case.

A main reason is that Greece has been so poorly run that talented Greek nationals have been fleeing the country of their own volition. Mediocre governments on the right and the left were silently tolerated because they were receiving sufficient European funds to distribute to their party followers. State mechanisms remained hostile to private innovation. When economic crisis hit hard and funds dried up, the state’s incompetence became floridly evident. It was thus wholly unsurprising when, in early 2015, radical left and far-right parties jointly rose to power.

There is no sense in debating whether Greek politicians are more corrupt than their European or American counterparts; personally, I am convinced they are all the same. However, any system runs on inertia until major crisis sets chaos in motion. The current government rightly identified that blunt austerity is leading nowhere. However, instead of working on pro-growth solutions, it mobilized the national psyche to total absurdity with pleas to “dignity,” “pride” and “democracy.”

The Greek renaissance should be supervised by a multinational council made up of Nobel Prize winners, thinkers and innovators who trust that Greece deserves better.

Populism and a critical lack of know-how is the common denominator among the neo-Stalinist syndicalists, outspoken nationalists and eccentric university professors (most of whom are entirely disconnected from serious global scholarship) who now happen to run the country. Mass media, justifiably anxious to create anti-austerity heroes, manufactured an artificial reality about these people. For example, the original finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, was heralded as a famous professor of economics, while he has never authored a single scientific article in any of the 30 top economics journals (as ranked based on citation impact factor by Thomson Reuters). In education and science, the two fields where Greeks particularly excel, emerging state policies are strikingly counterproductive. In his inaugural parliament speech, the minister of education (a professor emeritus) proudly declared himself a Marxist who considers excellence a stigma; fittingly, his deputy minister, a university professor of genetics, has not published any PubMed-indexed peer-reviewed scientific paper since 1996. This is Greek mediocrity at its finest.

In this context, competitiveness and evaluation are considered capitalist vices. The new vice-minister responsible for fighting unemployment is a popular comedian. Public office appointments are secured for party followers, much like before. In a new law the government is effectively blocking leading scientists of the diaspora from influencing local universities. And it’s not just the government — amidst chaos, no Greek political party is currently truly interested in meritocracy.

To counter austerity, Greece needs investment in areas where Greeks have a competitive advantage. It needs science, technology, scholarship and entrepreneurship research and development centers built in Greece with full transparency.

But given how paralyzed state mechanisms are today, who can ensure that development funds will do more good than harm? Not incompetent Greek politicians, nor short-sighted European bureaucrats (who are also pictured as austerity demons and enemies of democracy). The Greek renaissance should be supervised by a multinational council made up of Nobel Prize winners, thinkers and innovators who trust that Greece deserves better. New opportunities may attract the best minds, movers and doers (not only Greeks) to the country and drive the economy at-large. They may also revitalize local universities that still have several superb scholars, working with tremendous strain and often under meritless leadership in a sort of internal exile.

Genuine talent needs to be supported, retained and attracted to the country. Creative, visionary people without political ambitions may offer Greek society temperate, conciliatory voices that use well-thought, logical arguments and scientific support for their statements. Anyone who’s been paying attention to the country’s crisis will surely realize that that is what Greece needs today. 

John P.A. Ioannidis, MD, DSc is professor of medicine, health research and policy, and statistics at Stanford University. He is the author, most recently, of “Variations on the Art of the Fugue and a Desperate Ricercar" (in Greek, English translation forthcoming).

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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