How to build a knowledge economy in Greece

Greece is a developed country, and a member of the European Union and of the Eurozone. Since 2010 it has been insolvent and has virtually defaulted under a massive public debt. As the EU, the IMF and the European Central Bank provide lifeline loans to Greece, the country tailspins into one of the gravest recession in its modern history. The “traditional” business model of the country has failed and new paths must be opened if Greece hopes for a future.

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Regrettably, most voices for development focus on agriculture and tourism. Although both these sectors are obvious choices for investment they can never be productive enough to support a developed country with sky-high costs in defense spending, as well as in social and health services.

Greece must be re-invented and turned it to a dynamic, high-tech, export-oriented economy. Anything short of wholesale economic revolution will perpetuate the looming crisis into the following decades, exclude the young from the abounding opportunities of a globalized economy, further cultivate national tendencies for introversion, and render the country and its people historically irrelevant.

Much needs to change.Greece’s state schools serve not the interests of the pupils but of the heavily unionized teachers. They produce hordes of ignoramuses destined for a life of unemployment or underemployment. As a result, if you are a bright young mind from a low or middle income family you have very little chance of climbing up the social ladder, a right that was not refused to older generations of Greeks.

The country’s Universities are a disaster, with a few shining exceptions in various departments here and there. Research centers struggle to pay salaries and bills. Many of their stymied young scientists have left careers abroad to come to Greece, only to discover that the cleaners get paid more than they. The country’s brain power is frustrated, underemployed or unemployed, watching from the sidelines. If any of them dare to venture into commercially exploiting their ideas they will come up against the hydra of Greek bureaucracy, the labyrinth of its tax system and the medusa of its labor laws. Only heroes in the mythical sense could grapple with monsters such as these, and defeat them.

So the question is: given the current situation what could be done in order for Greece to become a high-tech export country? A country that not only will learn to exploit its knowledge capital, but also will compete for markets with players such as the Americans, the northern Europeans, the Israelis, the Indians, the Koreans, the Chinese, and a host of others who shape the future of our world?

The first step will be to raise the importance of the issue in government.Greece needs a minister for science, technology and innovation to carry out the reforms. S/he must have a clear and sustained mandate from the Prime Minister. S/he will have the responsibility of drafting legislation that will cover all the other four areas to be discussed. The current ministry of education will have to be absorbed in the new ministry, and focus on executing the reforms in schools and universities. The general-secretariat for research and technology will have to be integrated also in the new ministry and focus on linking research to industry.

School reform will be one of the four areas that the new ministry should lead. State schools need to be redesigned and teachers made to teach. Parents should be given the right to choose the school for their children, based on school evaluation by an independent agency. Schools should have independent governance and the freedom to become competitive by selecting personnel, expand their curriculum, etc. Their state income will be tagged to their evaluation reports, but they may also attract additional income from charities, local government or industry. Science and technology should be given prominence in the curriculum. Teachers should work with students around science projects and not only courseware. They should go out of the classroom more often and observe nature. Connect science and engineering to reality, to real problems, and enthuse young minds with the exhilaration that comes from discovery. The best performing students must be given a chance for quicker progress. Special schools of excellence for the brightest kids should return to existence. These kids should be taken through a more rigorous curriculum that would satisfy their curiosity and abilities. Gifted kids from the countryside should be helped to study in these schools, their boarding paid by special grants, or negative income tax on their parents’ earnings.

Secondly, a new framework must be devised that will exploit the country’s knowledge capital, starting from the universities. Many analysts argue that the decadence and corruption that prevails in Greek Universities are too deeply ingrained to simply go away with half measures. Perhaps then it is time that Universities ceased to be funded from the national budget. The Ministry of Science should identify centers of excellence in research, fund these generously and build new, leaner, State Universities around them. Let the rest of the departments survive of perish, based on their own. Such a radical plan will force universities to re-invent themselves from public to private institutions. Allow private universities immediately, in order to absorb the unemployed professors, but also to create a competitive environment for higher education.

Education can be both a citizen right and a market commodity; and we can have the best of both worlds. Students who pass university exams should be given a state grant for four years depending on their family’s income – and the right to spend it to the university of their choice, private or public. Rich kids will get no grant, but will be able to get a student loan.  Private and State Universities of high quality will attract students and their grants or loans, and thus survive and flourish. The rest can happily perish. Evaluation of Universities, state and private, will be carried out by an independent agency in order to inform students and their families.

But University reform, however radical and revolutionary, will not deliver any substantial results if not linked to the real economy. There are many who think that there is no real industry in Greece. This is not true. There is and efforts should focus on what Greece has, chemicals, pharmaceuticals, materials and software. For the next ten years research centers in the newly reinvented state Universities and research institutions should act primarily as R&D departments for the core industries. Researchers will be paid by the government but work in their labs to increase the international competitiveness of the private enterprises. Contracts will guarantee that profits from patents developed in the labs will be shared with the researchers. If the government, or private entrepreneurs, can bring in investment from abroad in other industries, then surely this framework will prove to be a major incentive for foreign investors.Greece cannot fund every research area there is, so she must focus on supporting her industries and create new jobs. Blue-sky research and basic research should be funded by European grants or by exploiting Greece’s membership to international scientific organizations such as ESA, CERN and EMBL.

Thirdly, a legal and administrative system must be designed and applied in order to finance new high tech industries. This system should give incentives to banks, corporations and angel investors, to invest on high-risk ideas. Labor and tax laws must be simplified. High tech start ups must be given tax breaks for the first three years of their operation, and be able to tap in the R&D resources available at the research centers and the Universities.

Fourthly, there must be support for the high tech industries. The government must build partnerships with  industries which will actively promote our products and services abroad, attract investment and scientific talent, and reinforce Greek presence to strategic markets.Greece must be rebranded. Greeks must reintroduce themselves to the world as a reinvented country where bright minds and novel ideas are valued and supported.

Lastly, and perhaps the most difficult task of all, a new scientific culture must be fostered in the country. Promote scientists and engineers, and encourage kids to choose science, engineering and maths as their favorite subjects. Professional organizations in science and technology must come out of the shells and reach out to society. The outreach program of the Hellenic Society of Physicists is an example which has to emulated and advanced by chemists, mathematicians and engineers.

Big Society must support the work of a truly reformist government, and that includes the major charity foundations of Greece which in the past decades seem to be obsessed with funding opera houses, art museums and music halls that appeal to the few and the mostly old. It is of course fantastic to have these buildings but what Greece needs most urgently now is to catch up with the rest of the world and not to be left behind.Greece, and wealthy Greeks, need to invest in new ideas, in bright people, in innovative start-ups, and in high technology.

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