I have argued over the years that the way Portugal has integrated into the European Union has cemented the country’s semi-peripheral position in the world system, a position held mainly after the 18th century and continues to this day was retained. It is characteristic of the semi-peripheral state to act as a transmission line between the central countries of the system and the peripheral (less developed) countries. In the European context, Portugal has been the country that has played this role the longest.
At one point it was the center of an informal empire and colony in England at the same time. After World War II, Portugal had to withdraw for geostrategic reasons in order not to be liberated from fascism, and these were also the reasons that ultimately dictated that the Portuguese Empire should last until 1975, as the most developed countries where they had already dissolved their empire (at least formally) in the 1960s.
The same semi-peripheral resignation resulted in Portugal joining the EU without taking advantage of its historical ties with other countries, despite being the European country that has been in contact with more regions of the world the longest. Assuming that anything different from the EU that would have been valuable for conservation and protection, such as family farming and artisanal fishing, would be inferior; uncritically (unlike Ireland) accepting European guidelines as good students, an effort which the Troika would later prove to be in vain; and above all, without offsetting the cost of the euro with exceptional investments in education, scientific research and culture, which would eventually allow us to diversify and qualify our society and economy and free them from the hell of low wages and poverty benefits.
35 years later, it is easy to see that fate has been fulfilled: Portugal has reached the limits of what was permissible for a semi-peripheral country. And there we stay. And all indications are that we will stay there if the Recovery and Resilience Plan (PRR) is implemented. The PRR uncritically follows the revenue of the EU (resilience, digital transition and climate change) instead of carrying out a thorough, retrospective and prospective analysis of the realities of the country and against this background proposing variations that are not only beneficial for the country but for the Union as a whole, as its vitality depends on the vitality of its members. What is most fascinating, however, is that it does not take into account the challenges the pandemic poses for all of European society and that all of our achievements are guided by a desire to be approved by something that goes beyond us, the EU. A reflection on our reality would lead to many options of the PRR being called into question. I only choose the area that is closest to me: scientific research and innovation.
It is enough to take into account the average educational qualifications of our entrepreneurs and the structure of our industrial fabric to conclude that, in the Portuguese context, science is placed at the service of companies in order to consolidate the semi-peripheral state. The mantra of science in the service of innovation serves the interests of the central countries of the world system because they have invested (and continue to invest) in basic research for a long time. You have a reserve of knowledge that can now be useful in promoting this knowledge internationally and the companies that are already using it or are able to use it. What Portugal needs now is a massive investment in basic research. The ability to be resilient depends heavily on the ability to do basic research, the ability to deal with the unexpected, find new answers, apply basic knowledge in new situations, and train human resources with these skills.
This is precisely one of the dimensions that characterize the added value of basic research compared to applied research. Applied research solves specific problems within a framework of knowledge that is already very well defined and experienced. Another thing is the ability to intervene in a context of uncertainty that is poorly defined in new problems where knowledge from basic research plays an important role (the vaccine development case is a prime example of this). Past experience shows that there are enormous difficulties in Portugal not to convert this potential into an alignment with normative practices defined by economic interests. The study is neglected.
It is wrong to put science at the service of business as it means that the added value of EU investments is likely to be used for innovation projects and for companies based in central EU countries. The story of the nineties is being repeated, with which we did not learn anything. But it would be just as wrong to put companies at the service of scientific research. What we need is for both sectors to grow so that the synergies between them come together at a higher level that allows the Portuguese to be more socially cohesive and more well-being. Scientific employment is essential, but make no mistake: if we do not want investments to be profitable for multinational companies that are only looking for Portugal for low wages, in the short and medium term this employment will mostly take place in scientific and higher education institutions .
There is a need to increase the quality of the university staff. When I started my university career, a university professor couldn’t teach more than nine hours a week. Today, the young researcher who managed to escape precariousness and came to the university with a certain expectation of stability is literally overwhelmed by the classes and bureaucracy that have been created around them due to another historical mistake: of creeping obedience to the so-called Bologna Process, a project which, among other things, served to transform the university into a capitalist company like any other in the long term.
Portugal needs democratic visionaries. We’ve been lucky enough to have one lately – Mariano Gago. I will forgive him at the expense of the only fatal mistake he made, that he destroyed the democratic election of the rectors and replaced them with general councilors, which did not improve the quality of the elected rectors and only made them more opaque.
Do not think that scientific research is reduced to the so-called natural sciences. On the contrary, the complexity of today’s societies and the challenges that arise from the time of intermittent pandemics require a new centrality of the social sciences, humanities and culture. Whenever a paradigmatic transition is made, the level of uncertainty can only be democratically controlled by investing in the social sciences and culture in the broadest sense. Since we live in a mid-level technocratic context, I have to justify this position with the superguru of technological utopias, Nicholas Negroponte. When El País asked in 2019 what is most important for studying in a hypertechnological society, Negroponte answered dryly: “The humanities are the most important thing that can be studied.”
Portugal needs less infrastructures than superstructures. Scientific and university institutions are needed that are free from directors and deans of day-to-day management. It takes an FCT with highly professional, non-precarious staff who know how to competently manage the scientific system. You don’t need technocrats, you need democratic visionaries. We’ve been lucky enough to have one lately – Mariano Gago. With great effort I forgive him the only fatal mistake he made, that he destroyed the democratic election of the rectors and replaced it with general councilors, which has not improved the quality of the elected rectors and is far from ending cronyism. only made them more opaque.