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Suspend disbelief

Wrangling over scientific misconduct could influence Romania’s general election.

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One of Romania’s best known cultural figures is playwright Eugène Ionesco, who co-founded the twentieth-century movement known as the theatre of the absurd. Had he been alive today, he might have written an absurdist play about his native country — with science taking a strong supporting role.

Romania remains one of the problem children in the European Union (EU). It has stacked up debilitating debt in the past decade, and in recent months has worryingly veered away from democratic principles. However, ahead of joining the EU in 2007, the country started to develop the framework for a serious scientific base, something that its leaders considered important to make good the damage caused by 40 years of communist dictatorship. Most of the best scientists had left the country, and an appropriately funded, meritocratic system was needed to tempt them back.

The present government of Social Democrat Victor Ponta has been in office for less than a year but it has reversed many of the positive steps taken. Should his Social Liberal Union (USL) coalition gain the absolute majority predicted by some in the general election to be held on 9 December, it is likely to dismantle even more of the institutions set up to ensure meritocracy in academic appointment and funding, and will probably strip away the remaining checks against academic corruption.

Those checks are essential, not least to scrub clean Ponta’s government. In the past week, the watchdog website Integru.org has highlighted two cases of alleged plagiarism and one case of alleged data manipulation involving the research minister Ecaterina Andronescu, then a chemist at the Polytechnic University of Bucharest. She denies them. In accordance with Integru’s methods, each of the allegations was confirmed by several independent scientific experts from other countries in Europe and North America.

Unlikely as it sounds given the briefness of Ponta’s tenure, Andronescu was his third appointment as research minister, and the third to be accused of misconduct. Ponta’s first choice, Corina Dumitrescu, was withdrawn before she was confirmed by parliament. She stood accused of plagiarism and falsely claiming that she attended Stanford University. Ioan Mang was appointed in her place on 7 May but was forced to resign just a week later after Nature exposed extensive plagiarism in his academic papers in computer science (see Nature 485, 289, 2012). Absurdity peaked in June, when Nature revealed that Ponta himself had plagiarized in his 2003 PhD thesis (see Nature 486, 305; 2012).

“Could the issue of scientific integrity influence a general election?”

The accused all dismiss the charges as politically motivated. Ponta promptly ditched the committees responsible for considering the allegations, replaced them with sympathizers, and insisted that the wrong committee had judged him guilty. In a televised electoral debate on 2 December, which heavily featured Integru’s evidence against her, Andronescu responded by emotionally repeating her unlikely election slogan: ‘justice all the way’. A press release from her ministry attempted to dismiss the authority of Integru.org.

On 30 November, Andronescu announced her decision not to withdraw Ponta’s PhD, even though a report from the awarding University of Bucharest confirmed plagiarism. Only the research minister can order such revocation. Yet she claimed, absurdly, that it was not in her legislative power to do so. She similarly failed to take responsibility for plagiarism and other scientific misconduct allegedly perpetrated by leading figures in other universities. She has also announced her intention to eliminate rules that require grant applications to be sent to reviewers outside Romania, claiming that the process costs too much.

Those who are struggling to absorb the scale on which Romania’s scientific system is failing must do as they would in the theatre — suspend their disbelief. But they might also reflect on the challenge of building a strong democratic state on the ashes of a corrupted dictatorship. Ponta’s attempt in July to impeach President Traian Băsescu, a Democratic Liberal, drew a formal rebuke from the EU as undemocratic.

The second largest contender in the elections is a coalition led by the Democratic Liberals. The Democratic Liberals were responsible for bringing in the exemplary laws and structures for science that Ponta is now dismantling. But their governing coalition was also responsible for carrying out an austerity programme that, among other things, cut public-sector wages by 25% in 2010. The coalition collapsed in February this year and is still struggling to recover. But thanks in good part to the very public war on academic corruption in government, it may yet prevent the USL from winning an absolute majority. Could the issue of scientific integrity influence a general election? That would be astonishing perhaps, but not absurd.

Journal name:
Nature
Volume:
492,
Pages:
7–8
Date published:
()
DOI:
doi:10.1038/492007b

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