A woman walks past a panel with election campaign posters in downtown Chisinau, Moldova.

Moldovans are voting on Sunday. Credit: Dumitru Doru/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Several researchers, including one mathematician, are running for seats in Moldova’s parliament this month. They hope to depoliticize science, improve education and address high levels of brain drain in the small country of 3.5 million people.

The candidates say that a combination of corruption —Moldova ranks 117th out of 180 in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, poverty and a lack of funding makes life difficult for Moldovan academics, who struggle to travel to international conferences or win national research grants on the basis of merit.

The researchers’ campaigns have energized some in the scientific community — even as they fear that the academics, if elected, might still be too few in number to drive the much needed changes to Moldovan science.

Vadim Turcan, an assistant professor of civil engineering at the Technical University of Moldova in Chişinău, applauds the academics who have decided to run for office. “Academics can bring value, morality and ethics to the political scene,” he says. Dragos Postolache, a Moldovan geneticist working at the National Research and Development Institute in Forestry Marin Dracea in Romania agrees. “Scientists could be a breath of fresh air for the Moldovan politics,” he says.

The general elections are on 24 February. As well as science, hanging in the balance is the geopolitical orientation of this former Soviet nation, which sits between Romania and Ukraine and is divided between pro-European and pro-Russian influence. The country’s eastern region of Transdniestria, where one-third of the population is Russian, has split off as an internationally unrecognized state, but the rest of Moldova is actively pursuing European Union membership.

The election pits the pro-European Democratic Party, currently in power, against the Socialists, who favour closer ties to Russia.

Professorial perspective

Among the academics running for parliament are Serghei Cataranciuc, who leads the mathematics department at Moldova State University in Chişinău, an economics professor and five political scientists and historians. Most of them, including Cataranciuc, belong to a pro-EU platform called ACUM, an alliance between two fledgling political parties, which opposes both main parties (One academic is running as a member of the Green Ecologist Party). These candidates hope to revamp Moldovan science by boosting funding and collaborations with colleagues in Western countries.

“A scientist’s job is to do science,” says Cataranciuc. “But when things go terribly wrong in politics, it’s worth trying to change them for the better.”

If elected, he aims to move away from the Soviet research model in which, he says, a majority of funds go to research institutes led by politically affiliated managers. This, he adds, opens up government grants to cronyism, where protégés of political leaders — rather than the best scientists — get the funding.

He says that politicians should stay out of research, and that evaluations and promotions should be based solely on performance.

Moldova’s Ministry of Education, Culture and Research declined to comment on alleged political interference in science funding.

Brain-drain recovery

Cataranciuc also wants to see more funding for science centres at universities, where he says more than half of Moldovan PhD students and graduates train. “The problem is that these centres receive little money and can’t afford to hire skilled researchers,” he says.

Ultimately, he hopes to encourage bright minds to stay in Moldova, one of Europe’s poorest countries, where average gross monthly earnings are around 6,500 Moldovan lei (US$380). Moldova has fewer than 2,600 researchers, according to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation — and the numbers keep decreasing as researchers move abroad in search of better conditions.

“In mathematics, the most capable and most creative minds have left the country,” Cataranciuc says.

Aliona Onofrei, a senior consultant at the Ministry of Education, Culture and Research in Chişinău, acknowledges these issues, and says that there are already a number of projects aiming to address brain drain.

Small steps

But Cataranciuc thinks that providing young scientists with decent salaries and housing is key. To achieve this, he estimates that Moldova’s research and development spending will need to be raised substantially from around 0.4% of gross domestic product. Eventually, he would like it reach 3%, which is also the target set by the European Union.

“Cataranciuc is one of the best mathematicians in Moldova. It’s great that he’s running for a seat in the parliament,” says Mitrofan Cioban, president of the Mathematical Society of the Republic of Moldova in Chişinău. “I hope he wins, because he’ll support science, education and culture.”

Historian Octavian Țîcu, at the Institute of History of the Academy of Sciences of Moldova, is also running in the election as an ACUM candidate. He wants to improve international collaboration between Moldovan researchers and those from the West, and says that a first step is establishing funds for international travel.

“Academics were reluctant to go into politics after the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, and this is where it has lead us,” says Țîcu. “It’s time to bring some morality into politics.”