An Appeal to Support Researchers in Flanders

Francis Heylighen fheyligh at VNET3.VUB.AC.BE
Tue Mar 17 05:44:32 EST 1992

Dear Colleague,

We are spreading this message in order to ask colleagues abroad to help the
actions of Flemish researchers against drastically reduced funding. The
funding for basic research in Belgium, and especially in its northern
region of Flanders, has been getting worse and worse during the last years,
and has become especially dramatic lately. Since the group of researchers
in Flanders is small and not very well organized as yet, and since it has
no political power, we have decided to appeal to friends and colleague
researchers abroad to help us in our protest against these measures, by
sending us  letters of support.

In Belgium the main institution that provides employment and grants for
researchers is the "National Fund for Scientific Research" (NFWO/FNRS).
There is a wide consensus within the Belgian academic world about the
outstanding quality of this institution, as well with respect to its
administrative functioning, as to the high scientific level of its
researchers.  Hence, the recent measures to cut funding for the NFWO cannot
be justified by any criticism of the institution.

As you may know, Belgium is gradually evolving towards a federal structure
with two main independent regions of about 5 million inhabitants each: the
French-speaking Wallonia, and the Flemish-speaking Flanders. This process
has recently led to a split-up of the National Fund into a French and a
Flemish part. Presently the French part is being strenghtened, financially
and structurally. This was to be expected since Belgium as a whole was
spending much less money on basic research than comparable countries.
According to the OECD, less than 0.5 % of GNP is spent by government for
research in Belgium, compared to around 1 % in the neighbouring France,
Holland, Germany and UK (and even more in Japan and the USA). Therefore the
effort of Wallonia to increase funding can be seen as an attempt to adapt
itself to the European level.

It came as a complete surprise and shock then, when the Flemish government
decided to cut funding for the Flemish part of the NFWO, and that to such
an extent that its internal function must collapse. In the short term, the
measure implies the complete disappearance of long-term research contracts,
the diminishing of short term contracts, and a radical reduction of about
80 % in the funding for general working costs and equipment of major
research centers.  In the long term the only effect can be the factual
disappearance of basic research in Flanders.

Practically this means that young researchers, however bright they are,
will be unable to continue their career in academic research. The situation
in the universities is not much better, and there are no ways of escape
there either. In the recent past (10 to 20 years ago) relatively many
people have received a permanent research contract because of university
expansion. This means that they will stay there until their retirement. In
these times of budget cuts, however, there is practically no money left to
create new positions, and hence the younger generation simply does not have
any outlook for continuing research, unless they emigrate. And this in
spite of the fact that the average level of research in Belgium is quite
high, as testified by famous research centers such as the one created by
the Belgian Nobel-prize winner Ilya Prigogine.

Though the Belgian and Flemish governments do have important budget
deficits, that is not a sufficient argument to cut spending on research.
First, as outlined above, the funding in Belgium is already much below what
could be expected from a highly developed country. Second, what politicians
do not understand is that the development of knowledge is the single most
important factor determining economical and societal development, and as we
are moving towards a post-industrial information society that factor is
gaining in importance with every day that passes. Cutting funding on R&D
can only keep down future economic growth and, hence, income for the state.
Third, in spite of the budget deficit, Belgium (and especially Flanders) is
still one of the richest regions in the world, with an economy that has
been doing quite well recently and a per capita income higher than those of
France or the UK, and only slightly below that of Germany.

The  reasons for saving money in research rather than in other domains are
to be found in short-sightedness, lack of understanding of what research
really means, and the lack of political power of researchers as a group.
When train engineers, factory workers, or nurses are unhappy, they go on
strike, and everybody is immediately alarmed. If researchers would go one
strike, nobody would notice, unless many years later. But then it would be
too late to repair the damage. So we are looking for other ways to attract
the attention of the public and the politicians to our grievances.

For example, on February 6, for the first time in Belgian (and perhaps
World?) history there has been a public demonstration of some 5000
researchers in Brussels, protesting against the reduced funding. We have
further been organizing several panel discussions with famous scientists
(such as Prigogine) and politicians. Until now the actions have had success
insofar that the new Flemish government has taken a more positive attitude
and has promised to study the problem. But no concrete measures have been
taken as yet concerning the reduced funding. So we need to keep putting
pressure on them.

That is the reason we are making an appeal to international solidarity. We
ask all our colleague researchers to write a letter in which they express
their solidarity with our movement, stressing the importance of an adequate
funding for basic research, and protesting against the cutting down of the
NFWO. If you have had personal contacts with researchers employed by the
NFWO, we would ask you to emphasize the quality of their work, which was
made possible by the NFWO.

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