I began working at the VIMA newspaper right after concluding my post graduate studies abroad (in Britain and France). In the spate of a few months, in early 1997, I went from a member of the student diaspora to a reporter for one of the oldest newspapers in Greece. My hiring by VIMA, the circulation of which stood at the time at 200,000, marked the first instance of a Greek newspaper staffing a reporter exclusively dedicated to covering scientific issues.
The timing could not have been better. In February of 1997 the birth of Dolly the sheep, the first cloned mammal, was announced to the world (Dolly was actually born a few months earlier). Shortly afterwards the isolation of embryonic stem cells became possible, enabling the sector of regenerative medicine to be borne. Contemporaneously, the decoding of the human genome (the completion of which was announced triumphantly by President Clinton in June 2000) was to revolutionize biology. All these scientific achievements on the one hand enchanted the Greek public, but on the other hand, they engendered fears and conspiracy theories, particularly so in the case of cloning. Thus, every week I would seek out scientists to interview, who would provide an accurate explanation of the research achievements that were being reported in credible scientific journals, for example, Nature and Science.
My contact with the Greek scientific diaspora came about due to this search for specialist scientists. But I emphasise that I was not looking for Greek scientists! It just so happened that often enough the leaders of research teams who published in prestigious scientific journals were Greeks. In the vast majority of cases they were diaspora Greeks and in far fewer cases they were diaspora Greeks who had repatriated in order to staff Greek universities and research institutes. This personal experience of mine seems to be confirmed by the numbers of scientists of Greek origin who are employed at universities and research institutes abroad.
I was never refused an interview by a Greek diaspora scientist. That being said, most of non-Greek scientists also seem inclined to explain their achievements to the wider public, even if the related inquiry originated from the other end of the world. Nonetheless, for Greek diaspora scientists an interview with a newspaper from the homeland always seems to have greater emotional charge. Rarely would the interviewee stick to the subject matter at hand, even for second generation scientists with less than fluent Greek. Thus, when the purely scientific discussion for the purposes of the newspaper’s reportage was completed, the discussion would revert to Greece, with Greek political, economic and research issues being at the forefront.
Were I to encapsulate my experience with the hundreds of Greek diaspora scientists I had the pleasure to work with, I would focus on two themes: first their aptitude to contribute to the homeland and second the high esteem in which they held one another. Regarding the latter observation, which was in stark contrast with my observations of the scientific community resident in Greece, Greek diaspora scientists I interviewed would invariably refer in highly complimentary terms to one or more of their diaspora compatriot scientists, whether they were collaborators or not. Often they would suggest to me that ‘you need to speak with x who is doing remarkable work on y domain’. These suggestions proved to be absolutely credible and naturally multiplied the presence of the scientific diaspora in the newspaper.
The aptitude to contribute to the homeland is verified by many ways. One of which is that rarely will there be a Greek in charge of a laboratory abroad without one or more compatriot doctoral or post-doctoral students working with them. This should not be taken as evidence of nepotism. Such students are strictly selected having gone through all the filters that are designated by international universities and research institutes. Naturally, this way the initial network of Greek diaspora scientist is strengthened and renewed by new blood.
It’s well established that distinguished Greek diaspora scientists often readily accept invitations to offer their advise to their country by becoming members of government committees dealing with their domain of expertise, or in committees evaluating academics in Greece’s research institutes.
The aptitude of contribution to the homeland becomes more demonstrable at times of crisis such as the one we are currently going through. When it became known that SARS-CoV-2 had arrived in Greece, Greek diaspora scientists mobilised in order to disseminate information of the pandemic’s risk and the necessity of adopting social distancing measures. One example is Professor Elias Mossialos who did not shy away from controversy when he advocated that the carnival festivities in Patras, one of the largest cities in Greece, needed to be cancelled. And I will never forget the voice of George Pavlakis, a top scientist in the US National Institute of Health, coming through Viber: ‘you have to write it so that everyone understands: a public health tsunami is on the way’. Likewise, the response of MIT Professor Konstantine Daskalakis was equally impactful. He gave a lesson in mass communication by explaining in accessible language what exponential growth, in virus contagion, means in order to convince his compatriots of the necessity of social distancing measures.
While the relationship of Greek diaspora scientists with the homeland is usually excellent, as I have portrayed it above, things do get complicated when repatriation is attempted. A significant number of scientists with brilliant careers abroad come back to Greece with the best of intentions only to leave disappointed after a brief stay. This issue is of the highest importance and well worth an in-depth examination as Greece is thus denied access to significant scientific capital.
Ioanna Soufleri is Chief Editor of VIMA Science. She received her PhD degree in molecular biology from the Pierre and Marie Curie University, Paris, France.