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Portuguese report
by Euro Reporter
2014-07-19 11:13:50
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Portugal slashes funding for physics research

At least half of all Portugal's scientific research units will receive only a limited amount of cash during the next five years from the country's main funding agency, the Science and Technology Foundation (FCT). An evaluation process carried out by the agency in collaboration with the European Science Foundation (ESF) graded 322 proposals in science with six grades – "exceptional", "excellent", "very good", "good", "fair" or "poor".  The process resulted in 71 out of 322 proposals being ranked "poor", and those will receive no funding, while 83 were ranked as "good" or "fair", and they will now get a maximum of €40,000 per year from 2015 to 2020 – for the majority this will be a substantial cut in funding. The remaining 52% were graded as being "exceptional", "excellent" or "very good", and they will now compete for a total of €50m in funding per year – about the same amount as in the previous evaluation process five years ago – in a second round of evaluation this autumn, that could, however, see more proposals downgraded.  The FCT carries out evaluations of the country's research every five years. While in the previous evaluation 16% of proposals were denied funding, this evaluation round was carried out for the first time in collaboration with the ESF, with the FCT also asking the publisher Elsevier to give bibliometric data about the researchers involved.

The results of the first round have been met with outrage by the Portuguese scientific community. "Physics in Portugal is being badly damaged," says Carlos Fiolhais, a physicist at Coimbra University. "The government is trying to shut down very active physics research units." In a statement, the Physics Society of Portugal also expressed concern, stating that "the majority of units in the centre and north of Portugal are going to be eliminated, or heavily constrained".  Critics also point out the mismatch between the evaluation and the actual performance of the units. For example, the Centre for Nuclear Physics and the Centre of Physics and Technological Research, both based in Lisbon, have the highest numbers of papers and citations per researcher in physics in the country, yet they have not progressed to the second round.  "We were graded 'excellent' in the previous evaluation and our bibliometric indexes have improved since then, but still we have been graded 'good' now," says Nuno Miguel Reis Peres, the director of the Centre of Physics at the universities of Minho and Oporto. This now means that the institute's cash from the FCT will fall from €380,000 to just €40,000 per year.

The FCT and the ESF have defended the quality of the evaluation. "The bibliometric output is only relevant to part of the evaluation. The strategic research plans proposed also had to be convincing to the panels," Nicholas Walter, a senior science officer at the ESF who reviewed the FCT's process. Indeed, the Portuguese government insists that there have been no budget cuts, with the exercise only a matter of prioritizing excellence. "I think it is a deliberate effort to redirect funding to areas that the FCT and the government feel are going to be competitive, and where innovation is likely to occur," says biophysicist Alex Quintanilha, who is a member of the European commission's Scientific Advisory Panel. "Social sciences, humanities and certain basic sciences are less important, in their view." While Quintanilha says that evaluation is necessary, he is concerned that the panellists evaluating the units were not experts in the same field. However, FCT spokesperson Ana Godinho maintains that each application was reviewed "by at least two area-specific experts" before the proposal was sent to the panels.


Portugal's bank woes just got more complicated

The saga surrounding troubled Portuguese lender Banco Espirito Santo (BES) took another twist on Wednesday, with the fortunes of a telecoms merger shedding more light on the strength of the country's banking sector.

Portugal Telecom rushed Wednesday to salvage a possible tie-up with Oi, the Brazilian telecoms company, after a possible default by Rioforte, an investment unit of the Espirito Santo group, called the deal into question.

The two telecoms firms said they had signed a "memorandum of understanding", in the hope of keeping the deal alive, and insisted they remained committed to "full completion" of the deal. Shares in Portugal Telecom rose 6.8 percent in morning trade.


Portugal Raises 1.25 Billion Euros in Treasury Bill Auction

Portugal’s borrowing costs increased as the government sold 850 million euros ($1.15 billion) of 12-month bills. The securities due in July 2015 were issued at an average yield of 0.453 percent, the country’s debt agency said. That compares with an average yield of 0.364 percent at a previous auction on June 18, which was the lowest rate for comparable-maturity debt since Bloomberg began compiling the data in March 2005. The auction attracted bids for 2.05 times the amount allotted, compared with 1.32 times in June. The debt agency also sold 400 million euros of six-month bills due in January 2015 at an average yield of 0.243 percent, attracting bids for 2.46 times the amount offered. That compares with an average yield of 0.438 percent at a previous auction of six-month bills on March 19 with a bid-to-cover ratio of 4.6.

Today’s sale was Portugal’s first debt auction since markets were roiled on July 10 after a parent company of Portuguese lender Banco Espirito Santo SA missed some payments on commercial paper. Portugal’s 10-year (GSPT10YR) bond yield jumped to more than 4 percent on that day. The two-year note yield fell 7 basis points, or 0.07 percentage point, to 0.95 percent at 1:17 p.m. London time. The 10-year bond yield dropped 8 basis points to 3.74 percent. Portugal is rated below investment grade by Fitch Ratings, Moody’s Investors Service and Standard & Poor’s. The IGCP, as the debt agency is known, on June 13 said that the total indicative amount for today’s auctions was between 1 billion euros and 1.25 billion euros. On July 2 Portugal raised $4.5 billion in its first dollar bond sale in four years. It plans to hold one or two bond auctions in the third quarter.

Portugal built up a cash buffer before the end of its European Union-led aid program in May, and the debt agency ended 2013 with what it calls a treasury cash position of 15.3 billion euros. Portugal aims to rise financing to cover “around two-thirds” of its 2015 funding needs by the end of this year, Secretary of State for Treasury Isabel Castelo Branco said in an interview on May 19.


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