What will save Portugal?

Portugal needs to switch to a knowledge-intensive economy to overcome the current crisis.

Windmills are seen 12 January 2006 near
Portugal has invested a lot into science and is leading the charge with renewable energy [AFP]

As Portugal is seeking a formula that would lift the country out of the deep economic crisis, in which it is embroiled, creative knowledge-intensive solutions should come to occupy the centrestage.

Despite a severe underfunding of the national institutions of higher learning, Portuguese scientists are making major breakthroughs that hold the promise not only to improve the quality of life worldwide, but also to tap into clean and affordable sources of energy.

Just last month, it was announced that Portuguese researchers with their British colleagues had made headway in the quest for an effective treatment of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, while others won a major grant supporting the development of new methods of fighting breast cancer at the molecular level.

In Portugal, today’s successes are the fruit of a long-term investment in the research sector that intensified with the creation of the national Foundation for Science and Technology in 1997. Partly funded by the European Union, the Foundation’s indirect mission was to prepare the ground for the transformation of the Portuguese economy into one that would be knowledge-intensive.

Nevertheless, the R&D sector and the universities in Portugal were not spared round after round of the highly unpopular austerity measures, introduced by the government of Pedro Passos Coelho. This year alone, the part of the budget allocated to the universities was cut by 10 percent, after the same institutions had already suffered cuts of roughly 100 million euros in the previous year.

Coupled with the drastic reduction in salaries and pensions, the budgetary strategy, approved by the international institutions that have guaranteed the Portuguese “bailout”, aims to keep the country’s labour market cheap and workers – relatively unskilled.

Counting the Cost – Portugal’s financial burden

This, however, is hardly a viable solution for a country with a population of just under 11 million people, where it would be impracticable to mount a mass scale production of consumer goods on the model of Asian economies. Not to mention that the decision to disinvest from Portuguese science and technology is immoral, given the decades of the dictatorial regime headed in the twentieth century by Antonio de Oliveira Salazar, who purposefully kept large segments of the population illiterate, so as to consolidate his grip on the country.

Another knowledge-intensive sector with the potential to turn Portugal’s economy around is renewable energies. Indeed, for some years now the country has been one of the world leaders in this respect, with over half of its electricity generation derived from renewable sources in 2010. Aside from its robust wind and solar power infrastructure, Portugal boasted the world’s first commercial “wave farm”, where the motion of ocean waves was transformed into electricity. The Agucadoura wave farm opened four and a half years ago near the northern city of Oporto but is currently offline, as the search for a more efficient technology continues.

Young award-winning Portuguese engineers, Filipe Casimiro and Francisco Duarte, have taken the latest of the bold steps on the path to the production of energy from alternative sources this year. Their groundbreaking technology, called Waynergy, captures the kinetic energy released by moving people and vehicles, and converts it into electricity. The first practical application of Waynergy is now set to open on a sidewalk in the Portuguese city of Covilha. This cost-effective technology is based on electromagnetic principles and does not require the exploitation of any natural resources. It stands in a stark contrast to the massive Canadian investment into the tar sands industry, aiming to extract oil from deposits situated in the Province of Alberta.

If Portugal is to recover from one of the worst crises in its history, its success will not be due to the international financial and political institutions, whose bailout is worsening the standards of living and the state of the national economy alike. Instead, it will have to capitalise on the most valuable resource it has, namely the dedication, persistence and ingenuity of those who contribute to the advancement of knowledge in the country. To do so, the Portuguese government needs to establish the R&D sector as the absolute priority, at the very least maintaining the pre-crisis levels of funding. Anything less than that would undermine the country’s hope for a decent future.

Michael Marder is Ikerbasque Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of the Basque Country, Vitoria-Gasteiz. He is the author of books and articles in phenomenology, political philosophy and environmental thought. His most recent book is Plant-Thinking: A Philosophy of Vegetal Life (2013). His website is here

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