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Resignation of Greek-American Scientist – A Blow to ‘Brain Gain’

ATHENS – The distinguished Greek-American scientist Nikos Kyrpides, biologist, researcher, head of the Prokaryotic Genomics Program at the Joint Genome Institute of the U.S. Department of Energy, submitted his resignation from the position of Scientific Director of the Medical Biological Research Foundation of the Academy of Athens (IIVEAA).

His resignation comes just six months after he was appointed to the position in question and is a blow both to the substance and to the image of the much-advertised ‘brain gain’ that the government is attempting, especially in the field of Life Sciences.

In his resignation letter, Kyrpides mainly cites as the reason that led him to this decision the impossibility of consultation with the institution’s leadership regarding changes in the administrative responsibilities of the Scientific Director that had been indicated by the Foundation’s Evaluation Committee, which had sounded the alarm bell about his course that led to a deviation from the leading role he had in the past.

Indicative of the bureaucratic and rigid way in which the Foundation operated is that, as Kyrpides mentions in his resignation letter, his first meeting with the Foundation’s Board of Directors took place on March 14, 2024, i.e. five full months after the announcement of his election in the official Greek government journal.

The National Herald spoke to Kyrpides and asked him to comment on his decision.

“Unfortunately, people who are in key decision-making positions in Greece, or in important organizations such as the Academy of Athens, have not realized that Greece is moving away from the development path and the need for substantial changes in the administrative organization, including modernization of management models in order to maintain a competitive position on the world stage, is becoming more and more urgent,” the Greek-American professor told TNH. “The global economy is growing primarily through technology, with the Biotechnology, Data Science and Artificial Intelligence industries at the heart of the technological revolution of our century.”

Kyrpides continued: “Greece has the potential to play an important role in this development and shaping of the new world, especially due to the fact that several Diaspora Greeks already hold important positions in this technological revolution. The challenge for our country is, how will it utilize the ‘brilliant minds’ of the Diaspora, and what incentives will it offer to encourage them to return and contribute to the development of their homeland. I personally know many of these ‘brilliant minds’, who have the potential to transform Greece from a passive to a leading position on the world stage. The motivations are obviously not primarily salary related, as the financial constraints of our country are well known. What is required is freedom of movement and decision-making and execution of ideas so that they can actively contribute to the transformation of the country, freeing it from the obstacles of graft, corruption, and nepotism that keep it captive to practices of the past.”

Kyrpides concluded: “If our Greece does not realize the seriousness of the situation, it will remain behind the global development and will continue to fall behind, being limited to the role of theoretical training of specialists, who will contribute to and lead the development of other countries but not their own.”

Drosatos: Kyrpides was not asking for power, he was asking for flexibility

Professor Konstantinos Drosatos. Photo: Konstantinos Drosatos, via Wikimedia Commons

Two other Greek-American scientists, each with a brilliant career in their respective fields, shared with TNH their comments on Kyrpides’ resignation- Konstantinos Drosatos, Ohio Eminent Scholar and Professor of Pharmacology and Systems Physiology at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine and President of the Executive Council of ARISTEiA-Institute for the Advancement of Research and Education in Arts, Sciences and Technology, and George Mentis, Professor of Neurology, Pathology and Cell Biology at Columbia University.

“My goal is not to attack the Foundation of the Academy of Athens and the Academy itself,” Professor Drosatos told TNH. “What happened to Mr. Kyrpides was just the last straw. Having knowledge of another reality that exists abroad, it hurts us to see countries like Israel, Ireland, and even Slovenia progressing in science, utilizing the results of science for their economy, and Greece still discussing the basics.

He continued: “Mr. Kyrpides was elected by a committee headed by Professor Iannis Aifantis. After his election there was an evaluation of the research institutions in Greece. Professor George Mentis participated in the Evaluation Committee of IIVEAA and identified administrative problems. When the results of the evaluation came out, Mr. Kyrpides requested that the management give him what the evaluation suggested, i.e. more flexibility in his administration, granting him some responsibilities, which was easy to do according to the Foundation’s regulations, a simple decision of the Board of Directors. However, the Board would have control over the budget, so it would control its choices and at the same time it would also have control over the Foundation’s long-term strategy. But there was strong resistance to this. In fact, reading the letter of resignation, I found that there was also a derogatory attitude towards him. Mr. Kyrpides is a world-class scientist who himself decided to return to Greece. We believed that because he was elected to this position, something is changing in Greece. With his resignation we found that nothing changes, unfortunately, we have more of the same. How will Greece change if the people who can change Greece do not have the power to do so? Kyrpides was not asking for power, he was asking for flexibility.”

When asked what must finally be done to change the situation, Drosatos is clear: “In Greece there is the Research, Technology and Innovation Council (ESETEK) whose president is Spyros Artavanis-Tsakonas from Harvard. This instrument has within it scientists of extraordinary scope. Let the Minister and the Prime Minister listen to them. This organization has been talking for years about the creation of a single research area in Greece. Unfortunately, the ministers seem unable to manage the situation. Perhaps the time has come for the Prime Minister to make decisions himself. And here I make a suggestion: there are Greek scientists abroad who are members of national academies of various countries. Let them invite these scientists to have a meeting with the Prime Minister and the President of the Republic. Let them listen to tell them about what is needed to improve research in Greece.”

Giorgos Mentis: We were very disappointed

Professor George Z. Mentis. Photo: Columbia University

Professor George Mentis of Columbia University, who participated in the evaluation of the Medical Biological Research Foundation, as Prof. Drosatos mentioned above, also spoke with TNH about Kyrpides’ resignation. “From the evaluation it emerged that there were serious administrative problems at the Institute, that is, problems that create obstacles to the scientific productivity of the institution,” Professor Mentis said. “We were happy that Kyrpides was elected director of the Foundation, we believed that he would bring a different air, he would bring his experience, his enthusiasm. We were very disappointed by this development.”

To the question of what should be done to change the situation and prevent such phenomena in the future, Mentis replied: “If there is no political will, nothing can be done.”

Memories from the case of Stamatis Krimigis

Greek-American scientist Stamatios Krimigis. (Photo by Eurokinissi/Georgia Panagopoulou)
Greek-American scientist Stamatios Krimigis. (Photo by Eurokinissi/Georgia Panagopoulou)

Kyrpides’ case brings to mind another similar case, that of Dr. Stamatis Krimigis who, exactly six years ago, in April 2018, during the SYRIZA government, submitted his resignation from the position of the president of the Hellenic Space Agency (HSA).

Dr. Krimigis, in his lengthy resignation letter, spoke of ministerial decisions that “practically nullified the reason for HSA’s existence, making it an untrustworthy bureaucratic structure that could become subordinate to any political superior.”

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