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The Greek debt crisis – a tragedy for cancer research?

With the Greek economy and bailout deals hitting headlines around the world the main focus is on tax increases and raising the retirement age, but what does it mean for cancer research in the country?

This is an extremely tough time for Greece, it is now generally agreed that it has experienced an economic crisis on the scale of the US Great Depression of the 1930s. Even before these latest developments, grant holder, Dr George Zachos, at the University of Crete, told us “It is very hard to apply for Greek funding, especially in our line of (cancer) research.  There are not many Greek charities you can apply to and the Greek government doesn't have regular calls for funding which makes planning very difficult. [many governments or funding bodies will issue specific calls for proposals, and invite applications for a set period of time. This is usually the only time it is possible to apply for funding from an organisation]. For example, until very recently, there was a period of almost 5 years without any government call in nearly any scientific discipline.  In other words, I would most definitely not have been able to work without Worldwide Cancer Research funding."

This is my third Worldwide Cancer Research grant, and you have been the main driving force behind our lab and its success all these years.

This week we caught up with him and Dr Vassiliki Kostourou from the Alexander Fleming Biomedical Sciences Research Centre in Athens, to ask what it is like trying to run a lab during a time of such financial insecurity. Dr Zachos informed us:

“It’s now been 8 years since I left Scotland and started my own lab in the University of Crete. This is my third Worldwide Cancer Research grant and you have been the main driving force behind our lab and its success all these years. What I told you a few years ago about funding in Greece for cancer research is still true, i.e. there are no regular calls for funding from the Greek state and some people who did receive state funding recently had it suspended halfway through their grant period because of the financial crisis. There are only 2 Greek charities that I know of that started giving small grants in the last couple of years, but it’s only around 4-5 grants per year of 10-20,000 euros for one year. We were successful with a couple of those, and its good as bridge funding but not something you can plan your lab's future around.”

What is life really like in Greece at the moment?

Dr Zachos sighed “Outside the lab, up until Monday, banks were closed and people were only allowed to withdraw up to 60 euros per day from ATMs. Many older people don't have debit cards (they use bank books and need access to an open bank) so these are the people most affected at the moment. Now the banks are open again and a higher, weekly limit has been set which is better. For the rest of us, I believe our main problem is the uncertainty of when we will be allowed full access to our savings and whether or not we will stay in the Eurozone. Overall, there is not much we can do I'm afraid, other than focus at work and hope for the best. At least work is going well and things are looking better now than they did last week, so fingers crossed!”

Dr Kostourou agreed “Yes bank capital controls have introduced several obstacles in our ability to plan ahead, both as individuals, but also as researchers. For example over the last few days, I had to make several phone calls to local bank authorities in order to acquire necessary information and make arrangements for my participation to a Gordon research conference in US, where I will present results from our Worldwide Cancer Research project.

What impact is the financial situation having on research?

Dr Zachos told us “Regarding the financial crisis, thankfully, because of our Worldwide Cancer Research grant, we are a bit protected at the moment and have enough consumables (chemicals, cells, glassware) money and salaries for a post-doctoral researcher and a PhD student. I know other labs in other institutes that were relying on core money for their research are struggling a bit at the moment but this is not currently an issue for us. The only potential problem for the lab right now is that, because of the capital controls, we cannot order consumables from abroad and the Greek representatives' stocks are being depleted. That’s because people cannot send money abroad, although they can always receive money from abroad. However, controls may relax soon and we may be able to resume ordering.”

“The financial situation makes it difficult to implement long-term planning.” Dr Kostourou agreed. “This has an impact on people’s morale and dilutes our hopes for improvements in the near or mid-term future. I also find a great comfort with my current funding from Worldwide Cancer Research because it allows me to carry on with my research, despite the frozen financial support from the Greek state over the last few years. Therefore, I feel grateful to everyone who donates to Worldwide Cancer Research and supports my research efforts and the young scientists that work in my team.”

What do you think this means for your research in the longer term? “As Dr Zachos said previously, long term planning for research funds unfortunately never existed in Greece. Yet, Greek researchers produce high calibre research and are able to compete internationally for available funds like yours. Therefore, I believe that Greek research will continue to stay at the front line of scientific advancement. Personally, I will work hard to ensure the successful outcomes of my projects for the benefit of both science and cancer patients.” Dr Kostourou said.

What about day to day life? How are you and your lab members feeling at the moment?

“Conducting research allows me to maintain my spirit and enthusiasm at high levels.” Dr Kostourou said thoughtfully. “This contrasts with the daily struggle of several Greek fellows. I try to infuse my optimism to the people around me and show to the disappointed students the benefits of conducting research. I also feel obliged to become a model scientist that will uplift the spirits and provide hope for the younger scientific generation. This is particularly important in the current situation where unemployment has reached 50-60% and many young people are going abroad to continue their research, resulting in a heavy "brain" drain. Fortunately, through Worldwide Cancer Research funding, I was able to recruit a young scientist from abroad and also provide the funds for a PhD student to continue her research in Greece.”

Jobs are indeed increasingly difficult to come by in Greece where unemployment, particularly youth unemployment, is well above the European average. A 2013 study found that more than 120,000 professionals, including doctors, engineers and scientists, had left Greece since the start of the crisis in 2010. Who knows how many more are leaving right now. Cancer research cannot afford to lose these great Greek minds just because there is no money to allow them to test their ideas and hire people to work in their lab.

Dr Helen Rippon, Head of Research, said “The current situation in Greece only serves to underline the importance of Worldwide Cancer Research’s aim to fund the best research we can, wherever in the world it take place. Cancer does not stop for political reasons and we must ensure that cancer research doesn’t either.”

Further information:

We have previously given over £1.7 million to scientists in Greece. Dr Zachos’ current grant looking at DNA bridges is worth £163,900, and Dr Kostourou’s grant to develop new anti-cancer treatments is worth £224,000.

Image courtesy of pixabay.com, CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0).

Science Communication Manager at Worldwide Cancer Research

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