Different strokes

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Scientists in Romania and Bulgaria are having the best and the worst of times.

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.


  1. Report this comment #17377

    Anurag Chaurasia said:

    A balance approach in monetary funding linked with administrative reform is a need of hour.
    Anurag chaurasia,ICAR,India,anurag_vns1@yahoo.co.in,+919452196686(M)

  2. Report this comment #17400

    Valentina Petkova said:

    It seems that the Romanian minister, a professional scientist, knows from his carrier what to do and having the backing of the scientific community is capable to win fights even against the political establishment.

    In contrast, our minister attempted a series of misguided and chaotic "€œreforms"€ totally neglecting the opinion and experience of the real scientists. The reforms are to wait his ousting.

    In fact, he is not the key figure behind the attempt to liquidate the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences on the pretext of reforms. The Finance minister, while an employee of the World bank, has several times seriously proposed to close the academic research institutes and sell their assets.   It is not even "€œan age of foolishness"€, it is rather an age of evil ...

  3. Report this comment #17415

    Georgi Rainovski said:

    The problems are not related only to the present government which just reflects the general public opinion that each investment should produce cash immediately. This logic is the basis for funding not only the research institutions but also the universities which severely harms the well-established research universities for the sake of numerous new semi-universities (with a population of 7.5 millions, Bulgaria has 33-35 public universities which are funded equally per-student and more than 20 private universities. The present minister of education Ignatov is a former rector of one of these private universities.). The scientific community is also deeply divided. I doubt that the Bulgarian scientific society and the political establishment can come up with any reasonable long-term plan. The experience from the last 20 years shows that any positive changes in Bulgaria happened under pressure from outside (EU or USA). The question is whether EU is willing to notice the problem and to intervene. This might be considered as a complicated issue since the education and science policy is a sovereign area of member states but in the case of Bulgaria it already comes down to a very simple question – “Does EU want to have intellectual deserts within its borders?”.

  4. Report this comment #17419

    Oleg Yordanov said:

    To add to the comment of G. Rainovski, only four out of fifty or so schools in Bulgaria offer degrees in Mathematics and Natural Sciences! By all practical measures, the science is squeezed out of the Bulgarian society. However, as the example of Romania shows and incidentally of the other neighbouring country, Serbia, the EC needs not to micromanage the educational politics in Bulgaria. As I "suggested earlier": http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v463/n7283/full/463877b.html, a comprehensive external overhaul of the educational system, similar to that done on BAS, could serve as a good jump start of the reform. Unfortunately, it is now obvious that this won't happen within the clock of minister Sergey Ignatov, who in an apparent conflict of interests comes from one of these schools that badly needs a reform. Therefore, V. Petkova correctly states, we need a different minister first.

  5. Report this comment #17466

    Vladimir Dobrev said:

    I would like to comment on the sentence:
    “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.”
    In Bulgaria in the natural sciences, there is no such phenomena as described above. The international evaluation of BAS showed that BAS is producing results according to international standards, and that most of these results are produced by the ‘old guard’, which itself was created in the last half-century in line with international standards. The problem of Bulgarian natural sciences is – as noted by the international evaluation – the inadequate financing, due to which almost no fresh blood wants to want to enter science. And what is worse, since the old guard is mainly over 55 years old, this means that in 10 years they will be gone, and then there will be nobody to train the young generation even if finance conditions are changed to the better.

  6. Report this comment #17467

    Miroslava Zhiponova said:

    I agree with Georgi Rainovski that there is a general public opinion that each investment should produce cash immediately, which I believe is valid in Bulgaria and everywhere where science is made. Students studying biotechnology in the universtiy ask the simple question: where shall we use our knowledge? I suggest that in the long-term planning for science improvement it should be clear where the education will be invested – at national and international level in: research centers, companies, agronomical or medical institutions... The attention and the experience of the whole scientific community is highly needed to promote the general change in East Europe. My personal opinion is that having an active scientific society will be beneficial for efficient integrating into the high EU requirements.

  7. Report this comment #17472

    Roberto Gasson said:

    Recent developments in Bulgaria's southern neighbor, Greece, are also very disappointing and illustrate the problems faced by countries that lack established policies and institutions for research funding.
    In the last decade, Greek research has suffered from a chronic lack of funds (five years with no calls for competitive grants). About a year ago, the newly elected government appointed Dr. Achilleas Mitsos as general secretary for research and technology, a move that brought many hopes that the system could be reformed (see http://www.nature.com/news/2010/100504/full/465022a.html). Mitsos, an experienced science administrator (EU director-general for research in 1996-2006), planned to create stable policies and institutions for science funding, based on the model of research councils operating in other countries.
    Earlier this month Mitsos was forced to resign from his post, in a row with deputy minister of education John Panaretos. The resignation came as a shock to many, but apparently not to insiders who knew of the power struggle at the ministry. Interestingly, Panaretos himself is in favor of reform and has introduced some commendable measures (e.g. international evaluation of grant proposals); but is accused of micromanaging (allegedly grant submissions and evaluations pass through his office), being unprofessional (the results of some grant evaluations have appeared on his personal blog before they were officially released) and lacking a long-term plan (creation of a lasting infrastructure).
    The story in Greece shows how labile (and subject to personal whim) reforms can be in countries that lack stable institutions with a long-term strategy.

  8. Report this comment #17474

    Emilia Patrut said:

    It is very important that "Nature" has promptly reflected in such a good light the changes which are about to take place in the Romanian academic environment, and it's a great victory for our Minister of Education that this law has passed.

    However, our Bulgarian neighbours shouldn't be very envious. In practice things might prove to be more difficult. The law changed, which is a very important first step. But there is the mentality of everybody working in universities that must change. Nepotistic appointments will be very hard to prevent as many of the professors are related in one way or another, and almost "inherited" their positions. It's a sort of alliance very difficult to penetrate.
    Furthermore, the vast majority of the vacant positions in universities are still locked because of the financial crisis.

    This means few chances for Romanian researchers who already came home from abroad during the last 2 years, and who have no "strong connections", to find a workplace in universities. One could argue that this talk is about only very few people. But those people did their best abroad, and afterwards had the foolish courage to come back in Romania and face the reality here – starting with convincing people that things like impact factor do exist and really matter. And if we are ignored even now, I would strongly advise every Romanian scientist abroad to think twice and make a short visit before planning their return.

  9. Report this comment #17606

    Delyan Savchev said:

    Hello. I would like to speak from the position of a want-to-be young scientist, at least trying to teach while working full-time commercially. While I generally agree with what Mr. Yordanov and Mr. Rainovski have said. I would like to add a few comments, as they represent these 55 year-old young scientists, which constitutes over 50% of Bulgarian university and BAS faculty. How do you think about the TENURE, which is common in the western countries. I have seen here in math faculty how professors are not graded for the teaching quality that they produce? They do not have requirements for their lectures to be produced in pdfs or something. Take the department of mathematical analysis in Sofia University and you will see that they do not have a pdf file posted at website.. compare with algebra department website! I am not trying to say that they are no good scientists or professors, but when employed in teaching you must have deliverables to meet for your students! So, the first step would be tenure with proper requirements what you are supposed to produce for the 5 or 7 year period – would that be articles in famous journals or quality textbook and lectures...! Further, if you close the many universities with weak students, you will make a lot of professors which teach all over the country to have less money in terms of salaries. Thus, there will be a huge fight for this policy. That is why, it must be done politically...Last but not least, from 3-5 months the Bulgarian universities ratings are available. I do not say they are exhaustive, but you can see the average salaries after graduation. Thus it is possible to make multiple comparisons and throw out the poor faculties..Further, there must be a standard for each discipline. Example – 3 major economic universities have a common entrance exam. Each department – math, history or whatever must take the time to produce a standardized test such as SAT. Then, for the best students – tuition free + good stipend (not 90 leva per month!) and for the ones with bad results – big tuition, so that there are money for the smart ones! Further, the number of students must be at least halved. e.g. what's the point to study Finance at the college of Shumen university at Dobrich. From government's point of view, however, this is the same with excellent students which study Finance at a school much harder to get in – state subsidy is the same!
    So, there are multiple sides of the issue, but the student must be the center – he is the one that is getting the immediate product and the nation some time after...

  10. Report this comment #45055

    Kalo Franky said:

    I don't they knew that for I think it came the resignation came as a shock to many, but apparently not to insiders who knew of the power struggle at the ministry. celebrity rehab

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