Bulgaria in the cold as European Union freezes its innovation funding

The trading bloc has withheld two-fifths of its expected grants.
Students protesting with chairs on their heads in Bulgaria, 2010.

Bulgarian students protesting against planned budget cuts in 2010. Further cuts for science and education sparked more recent strikes in November 2017.Credit: Oleg Popov/Reuters

European Union science ministers are due to meet on 2 February in their bloc's poorest member state — Bulgaria — to discuss future EU research policy. For the host nation, it was supposed to be a chance to showcase its ambitious plans to boost economic growth by attracting international research institutes to the country.

But the timing of the event is awkward, to say the least. In July, Bulgaria had been due to receive €150 million (US$186 million) from the European Union to build facilities for research and innovation, under a programme that aims to boost economic growth in poor regions. The programme, which was expected to give Bulgaria €700 million between 2014 and 2020, is designed to help with the costs of research infrastructure.

However, the EU authorities withheld the money after Bulgaria failed to identify enough sufficiently qualified scientists to evaluate the proposals. The authorities had demanded experts with three or more publications with at least five citations in the top journals in their subjects. Then in November, the Bulgarian government cut its 2018 science and higher-education budget by around 25%, a move it had planned in anticipation of the windfall.

The decision has frustrated scientists in Bulgaria, because they had wanted to use the new infrastructure to forge links with researchers outside the country. “Now, we cannot prepare proposals because we are not going to have the infrastructure,” says Ana Proykova, a physicist at Sofia University and an adviser on European research infrastructure to Bulgaria’s government. She says that the government should reinstate the funds it cut from the 2018 science budget. “We are still fighting very strongly for the funding procedure to be re-opened, even if it is in the middle of this year. Otherwise, our budget is going to be very tiny.”

Source: Web of Science

Spanner in the works

Bulgaria, which took over the six-month rotating presidency of the EU on 1 January, produces little science compared to the bloc's other member states. The country's output is low (see Bulgaria's output lags behind), and more than 30% of PhD-holding Bulgarians are at present pursuing careers abroad. But scientists in Bulgaria hope for improvements. The country intends to bid for a proposed Balkan synchrotron particle accelerator, a light source that many hope will promote international diplomacy in the region. Its universities want to tap into EU infrastructure funds. During its presidency, Bulgaria is also in charge of negotiating Framework 9, the EU’s latest seven-year plan for science, which is due to be finalized in May. It sees the plan, in part, as an opportunity for Bulgarian companies to enter into lucrative contracts with international research consortia. “Industry is very important for us,” says Karina Angelieva, adviser for education and research at Bulgaria’s permanent representation to the EU, in Brussels.

These plans are now at risk, unless Bulgaria can persuade the EU’s regional-policy directorate general to release the frozen funds. Meanwhile, the 2018 science and higher-education budget stands at just 415 million leva (US$263 million), plus another 98 million leva for the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, 15 million of which were obtained after researchers went on strike in protest at the extent of the planned cuts in November. That sum returns the university budget to 2013 levels.

The financial difficulties also threaten Bulgaria’s national research-infrastructure road map, which was published in June 2017. Kostadin Kostadinov, an adviser to the country’s science and education minister, Krasimir Valchev, says that the road map “will increase research potential in Bulgaria according to the needs of local industry and regional development”, and that it is part of a plan ultimately to raise the country’s total science spending to 1.5% of gross domestic product (GDP). Such expenditure currently stands at 0.96% of GDP, which is less than half of the EU average.

Problems with science funding are exacerbated by corruption, say several scientists. Not only is Bulgaria the poorest country in the EU, it is also the most corrupt, according to Berlin-based lobby group Transparency International. Proykova says that science is rarely directly affected by monetary fraud, but corruption makes itself felt in procurement. “For example, things are never delivered to the lab, even though the money has been transferred,” she says. “Or, you get less good equipment for the same money, because the company takes some of the funds.”

Some scientists see Bulgaria’s turn in the EU presidency as a chance for change. Lidia Borrell-Damián, director for research and innovation at the European University Association in Brussels, says that the presidency provides an opportunity for Bulgaria’s universities to connect with others. Daniel Smilov, a political scientist at Sofia University, says he hopes that the presidency will put the country’s problems on the map, forcing change from outside that has been lacking from within. “It is an important moment,” he says, “because our visibility will be great.”

Nature 554, 156-157 (2018)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-01374-x
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