Marine geologist Liviu Giosan has lived through history. As a student in Romania he took part in the December 1989 demonstrations that brought down the communist government. Just months earlier, no one in the deeply isolated country would have believed that the hated dictatorship could ever fall. Yet the euphoria lasted barely six months. In June 1990, miners joined troops in violently crushing the street protests by students demonstrating against the communist presence in the newly elected government. After he got his degree in 1993, Giosan left for the United States to build a scientific career for himself — something he knew he couldn't do at home. He is now an associate scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Massachusetts.
Most of the brightest young scientists in Romania — and neighbouring Bulgaria, which shares a similar history — have emigrated as soon as they could. Very few have returned. It remains hard to do science in these countries, even though both joined the European Union in 2007. A few bright spots exist, but too much of the research landscape is still dominated by old-guard scientists who don't produce results, resist the introduction of international research standards and block the system to fresh blood.
As we report on page 142, the tide may just have turned for Romanian scientists. The government there is boosting funds and seems to know what is required for them to be spent wisely, and how to overcome scepticism among research émigrés. The Romanian government has a serious long-term plan for science, and this deserves recognition. Romanian scientists abroad, Giosan among them, are starting to smile.
“A poorly performing science base cannot be fixed by just throwing money at it.”
The sentiment is not shared by those who watch the situation in Bulgaria with mounting despair. The Bulgarian government has only a short-term plan, the long-term consequences of which are likely to be disastrous. Funds have been slashed and the control of dozens of research institutes is set to be handed to the government from the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, which will survive only as an academy. To separate active research from a learned society is not necessarily wrong — the status of both Britain's Royal Society and France's Académie Française demonstrates that — but the Bulgarian government is yet to show that it knows what to do with the institutes it is so keen to adopt.
In fact, it is clear that this populist government — which took office in July 2009 on an anti-corruption mandate — is not interested in science, and has convinced many among the general public that it is a waste of money. Its science and education minister, Sergei Ignatov, was politically too weak to oppose a budget cut of more than one-third ordered in mid-2010. Science in Bulgaria has been humiliated as never before.
It is true that the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences needs deeper reform. Under pressure from previous governments to raise its game, the academy organized an international evaluation and slimmed down to a fraction of the size it was in richer, Soviet times. But greater change is needed.
As the Romanian government has noted, a poorly performing science base cannot be fixed by just throwing money at it: regulations need to ensure that the money is well used. But in the same way, reforms are pointless if budgets are so restricted that little serious research can be performed — as is now the case in Bulgaria.
The Bulgarian government, together with its scientists, must urgently create a long-term scientific plan for the country, and a strategy to put the plan into operation and ensure that it is successful. It cannot afford to reject the European Union philosophy of a future centred on a knowledge-based economy.
In the meantime, it needs to restore budgets for science and universities to levels that allow them to function properly, and delay plans to break up the academy. Only when a proper long-term strategy is in place will the government know what it needs to do about its research institutes and their budgets. If it needs inspiration in this, it need only look north to its neighbour Romania. The contrast between the age of wisdom and the age of foolishness is clear.