Corruption allegations plague Romanian site of huge European laser project

The institute near Bucharest hosts the world’s most powerful scientific laser — but some scientists say that poor management is threatening the facility and the project.

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A green laser being tested by a technician at the ELI-NP facility

The Extreme Light Infrastructure — Nuclear Physics is at the Horia Hulubei National Institute of Physics and Nuclear Engineering in Măgurele, Romania.Credit: Thales

Romania’s largest scientific institute — the site of a multimillion-euro, world-leading research laser — is being rocked by a series of disputes involving its director. In July, a trade union representing scientists at the Horia Hulubei National Institute for Physics and Nuclear Engineering (IFIN-HH) near Bucharest lodged a corruption complaint against their director, Nicolae-Victor Zamfir, with Romanian public prosecutors. The researchers allege that Zamfir’s reappointment as director was illegal. They also say that he has mismanaged the institute, disrupting its science, and the project to build the laser as part of the European Union’s Extreme Light Infrastructure (ELI) initiative, which is risking Romania being cut off from the venture.

In the complaint, the researchers protest against the extension in February of Zamfir’s contract as head of IFIN-HH by Romania’s secretary of state for research, Dragoş Ciuparu, for nearly another four years. They say that this is problematic because Zamfir is 68 years old — three years over the legal age limit for such a public-servant position. They also filed a complaint against Ciuparu, acusing him of abuse of office, and allege that Zamfir is complicit in the abuse.

“Many IFIN-HH scientists don’t want Zamfir to lead their institute because they say he is disrupting their science and jeopardizing chances for Romania to be part of ELI,” says union representative George Epurescu, a physicist at the National Institute for Laser, Plasma and Radiation Physics near Bucharest. “And we don’t believe his extension is even legal.” The union represents 45 of IFIN-HH’s 250 scientists.

Zamfir and Ciuparu deny abuse of office. Zamfir says that the age limits on the directorship were brought in only after he was originally appointed in 2004, and that the extension to his contract aligns with laws in existence when he signed a previous contract.

“Here, in Romania, anyone can accuse anyone of anything,” says Ciuparu. “I will wait for those entitled by the law to deal with it.”

Zamfir also rejects allegations of poor management. “IFIN-HH is at the level of the most prestigious infrastructures in Europe and worldwide,” he says. “Throughout my tenure as director, my primary concern has been to enhance our collaborations, in order for the institute to be part of the larger world and European scientific community.”

Mega laser

The ELI is a €875-million (US$1-billion) EU mega-project that is building three state-of-the-art research lasers to boost science in central and Eastern Europe. The other two sites, in Hungary and the Czech Republic, will be ready to offer their services to researchers worldwide next year. But the Romanian facility, which is called ELI-Nuclear Physics (ELI-NP) and is designed to carry out cutting-edge research in nuclear photonics, has fallen behind schedule because of problems with a key component, the γ-source. This will generate an intense and brilliant beam of γ-rays that will allow detailed study of the structure of atomic nuclei. The other components of ELI-NP, two 10 petawatt lasers — the most powerful ever built — are on schedule.

In 2018, disagreements broke out between Zamfir and EuroGammaS, the consortium building the γ-source, over its installation. Zamfir cancelled the contract with EuroGammaS, even though most of the components had been built, and contracted Lyncean Technologies of Fremont, California, to finish the source, pushing its completion back to 2023. Courts in Romania are deliberating who should pay for the work already completed by EuroGammaS.

The delay means that Romania has been left out of the ELI’s next crucial phase: in May, the two other countries did not include Romania in their application to the European Commission to form a European Research Infrastructure Consortium (ERIC) that will add other EU partners to ultimately govern ELI and share its operational costs, in a similar way to how an international administrative organization governs CERN, Europe’s particle-physics lab near Geneva, Switzerland.

Staff tensions

Some researchers at IFIN-HH say that, more broadly, over the past few months, Zamfir has made a series of personnel and organizational decisions that have damaged their scientific output and alienated international collaborators, creating tensions between staff and management. In May, 95 IFIN-HH scientists signed an open letter calling for his reappointment to be rescinded.

The signatories also complained that in April, Zamfir dissolved the institute’s scientific council, which is elected by the permanent scientific staff. Zamfir says the electorate should have included other staff at the institute.

The extension of Zamfir’s contract was the last straw, says Livius Trache, a former scientific director at IFIN-HH. In May, Trache wrote a letter to IFIN-HH’s scientific collaborators in other countries, in which he describes “a war between management and researchers at the institute”. The letter criticizes Zamfir’s management style and complains about his dismissal of the scientific council. It stresses the value of ELI-NP, which it says needs to be rescued from bad management.

On 24 July, Zamfir fired Trache from IFIN-HH because of what Zamfir described to Nature as a “serious breach of the regulations forbidding the spreading of false information about the institute”. International colleagues leapt to Trache’s defence. In an open letter to the science minister and the state secretary for research on 9 August, 66 physicists in 16 countries describe Trache as an “international key leader in the field of nuclear physics and astrophysics”, and requested that he be reinstated at IFIN-HH.

Furthermore, scientists say that in November last year, Zamfir disrupted a collaboration agreement with the Institute Laue-Langevin (ILL), an international organization that provides neutron beams for scientific research in Grenoble, France. ILL researchers say that Zamfir rescinded a loan of important detectors intended to improve the efficiency of a new ILL instrument to probe the structure of atomic nuclei, even though there was an agreement between IFIN-HH and the ILL about the loan.

“We were counting on these detectors and had an official agreement with IFIN-HH,” says Silvia Leoni at the Italian Institute for Nuclear Physics in Milan, who is a member of an ILL scientific advisory organization. Their loss, she says, “is inevitably having a negative effect on the scientific output”.

Zamfir said that the detectors needed to be returned to IFIN-HH for an equipment audit. “We have excellent collaborative relations with ILL and I always promoted them.”

Left alone

Researchers at IFIN-HH, 10–15% of whom work on the laser project, worry that the troubles mean that the facility will be cut off from the main ELI project and that Romania will be left to pay for its running costs — about €30 million per year — on its own.

“Our entire national budget for competitive scientific projects for the next three years — from physics or biology to the arts — is just €6 million,” says Octavian Micu, a physicist at the Institute of Space Sciences near Bucharest. “Compare this to the €30 million that Romania would have to pay annually for the operation of ELI-NP if it does not become an ERIC member.”

“We are on time with all the other experimental facilities,” at ELI-NP, says Zamfir. The only exception that is subject to delay is the γ-component, he says.

A report published on 14 July by the ELI consortium’s International Scientific and Technical Advisory Committee (ISTAC) said that a 2018 effort by the European Commission to mediate the dispute with EuroGammaS over the γ-source “was ignored by Romania”. ISTAC concluded that “the management of ELI-NP need to demonstrate good faith cooperation and capability to run an international facility in a transparent and verifiable way”.

“We all hope that ELI-NP will be able to join ELI ERIC later on, when all the issues are fixed,” says ISTAC chair Sandro de Silvestri, a physicist at the Polytechnic University of Milan.

The European Commission says that it is keen to see ELI-NP back on track. It paid for ELI using structural funds, which are typically reserved for basic infrastructure projects in poorer EU countries, and it has limited authority over how such projects are implemented. “The commission is aware of, and has been closely monitoring, implementation challenges of the ELI-Nuclear Physics project, and is in close contact with all ELI partners to discuss the way forward,” a commission spokesperson told Nature.

Nature 585, 18 (2020)

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