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.

Bibliometric evaluation

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.

Physics in Portugal is being badly damaged
Carlos Fiolhais, Coimbra University

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 Center for Nuclear Physics and the Center 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 Center 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, told physicsworld.com.

Prioritizing excellence

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.