Published online 12 January 2011 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2011.8

News: Q&A

Romania's high hopes for science

Science minister Daniel Funeriu talks about why his country is investing more in research and reforming its universities.

Daniel FuneriuDaniel FuneriuRazvan Chirita/Mediafax Foto

Daniel Funeriu was just 17 when he fled the communist dictatorship in Romania in 1988, and just 38 when he became research and education minister there in December 2009 — sacrificing the promising research career in chemistry he was building abroad.

Last week, he won a bitter and protracted fight with the old guard in the Romanian parliament to introduce an education law designed to bring teaching and research policies in line with those in scientifically strong countries. He talked to Nature about his battles in science and politics.

Why did you decide to leave Romania in 1988?

Life was frozen there in the dark age of the dictatorship, and I knew I couldn't live with it. Romania was so closed that we didn't feel the wind of change that was blowing in the other eastern European countries. We didn't think the situation was going to change any time soon.

How did you manage to get out?

I was allowed to go on a trip to France, but without my family. The authorities did not imagine that at that age I would not return to my family and complete my last year of high school. I didn't tell my father that I was planning to stay in France. I remember watching him from the train as it pulled out of the station in Bucharest with a strange feeling. I believed I wouldn't see him again for decades, if at all. As it happened, I was able to visit Romania in 1990 after the 1989 revolution unexpectedly overthrew the communist dictatorship.

How did you manage to continue your education?

I enrolled in an international school in Strasbourg, France, at the Lycée International des Pontonnierse, and finished the last year of the baccalaureate. The principal at the school didn't know my story but he knew there was something strange about me. I didn't speak French well and was turning up to gym classes without the proper equipment, yet I was quite advanced in sciences. When I told the principal my story, he gave me a lot of help.

I had been passionate about chemistry from a young age and had participated in many chemistry Olympiads in Romania. As luck would have it, there was a French Olympiad in chemistry soon after I arrived. I entered, came second nationwide and won 25,000 francs [about US$8,000 in 1990]. That was a lot of money then, and it helped me to pay my way as a student. A French journal wrote about me and I was scared the Romanian communists might read it and cause my family problems. Fortunately, 1989 came and Romania was delivered.

I graduated in chemistry at the Louis Pasteur University in Strasbourg, and was fortunate to do my PhD there with Jean-Marie Lehn, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry a few years earlier in 1987.

How did your scientific career develop?

I wanted to shift away from hard-core chemistry in the direction of chemical biology. In August 1999, I moved to the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, to work on peptide chemistry. America was an inspiring experience. I met some of the brightest scientists and it opened new horizons for me. In 2002, I moved to Osaka in Japan as a researcher at the National Institute for Advanced Industrial Science and Technology. Then in 2006 I won a Marie Curie Excellence Grant that allowed me to establish my own research team at the Technical University of Munich, Germany. I have done a lot of work on developing microarrays as well as building protein-based supramolecular constructs.

What made you so passionate about chemistry ?

The fact that you can change matter and endow it with new properties — to make things that no one had thought of before. That ability to change things always fascinated me.

Is there a parallel there with politics?

I was also attracted to politics at an early age, but didn't want to make a political career in a dictatorship, so I didn't push my thoughts about that until Romania was freed in 1990. But I also don't think you should enter politics before you have established a career for yourself. You need to strike the right balance between being a complete person and being young enough to have the energy and power to drive major changes.

It began with the first European elections for Romania, in 2007. I didn't make it then to the European Parliament — I was fourth on the list of the newly created Liberal Democratic Party and only three entered parliament. But I substituted for one during the last few months of his mandate when he was elected to the Romanian Senate at the beginning of 2009. It was a good entry point for me.

Were you surprised to be selected as research and education minister?

That's always a surprise! The Liberal Democratic Party first called me when it was trying to form a government in November 2009. It is not often a scientist gets a phone call like that. But I had already been identified in Romania as someone experienced in science and education policy, because I'd been vice-president of a 2007 commission, established by Romania's president Traian Băsescu, to diagnose the problems of education and research, and to provide documents on options for improvement.

How do you view Romanian science at the moment?

Rapidly improving, but many of the research institutes and university research groups still don't perform well, even though there was a significant slug of extra money between 2005 and 2008. The money did not necessarily get distributed to the best people, and academic positions don't necessarily go to the best people either. Some academics tend to hold several powerful positions at once, and this results in potential conflicts of interest. Scientific nepotism still exists. We need more input from Romanian scientists abroad and an influx of the best international practices.

How have Romanian researchers reacted to your reforms?

Depending on where they stand, they see me as either a big opportunity or very bad luck.

I know how science needs to be managed. I know the nuts and bolts of a scientific career and how to recognize the best research, worthy of funding from public resources. I am also a big fan of private research. People who were used to getting money, even though their results were humdrum, are angry. They know they can't convince me that what they are doing is important if it isn't. I hope that most of the dynamic scientific community supports my attitude.

What measures have you taken to improve Romanian science?

We raised the budget for 2011 because it had fallen too low. But as money alone won't solve the ills if it keeps going to the wrong places, our government is supporting comprehensive legislation in higher education and research, which became law on 4 January. Our government also brought Romania into several major international infrastructures such as CERN [the particle-physics laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland].

Has your education law been inspired by other countries?

The commission for education carefully studied all sorts of models in other countries. We decided to introduce Habilitation [a post-PhD qualification required to become a professor and supervise PhD students] that exists in France and Germany, even though they are trying to dismantle it there. We need Habilitation to ensure that only quality-based criteria are used in making senior appointments.

Why was it so vehemently opposed?

The law introduces extensive, internationally based evaluation that the old guard instinctively doesn't like, particularly because it will involve foreign academics casting judgement on us. But the law also proscribes conflicts of interest: within universities, for example by preventing family members from holding positions of academic power in the same institution; and beyond universities, by stopping university rectors from concurrently serving as elected politicians. There are four university rectors in parliament, and two sit on the education committee that the new law. It looked at one time possible that we wouldn't win. But this law was so important for our government that we pushed it through on a confidence vote.


What comes next?

We have eight months to generate all the secondary legislation to bring the law into force. During this time we'll also be engaging with the academic community. We want them to be on our side and realize that this law is good for Romania, and, most importantly, that it is irreversible.

We are also in the process of creating a 'twinning lab' scheme in which a foreign-based scientist would get an equipped 'mirror' lab in a Romanian institution, complete with a couple of postdocs and PhD students and travel money for the scientist to come to Romania for a certain amount of time each year, and for the young scientists to visit his or her lab abroad. We will target mid-career scientists, with the goal that they might like the changes they see in Romania and eventually come back. Money should start to flow this year.

Do you think you will return to your scientific career?

I had to relinquish my research post when I became minister, and I don't know whether it will be easy to go back. Depending on how long I am going to be out of it — and I'd like to stay in politics for a while — it may have been an irreversible move. Still, I read Nature, Science and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences every week, I talk to fellow scientists and participate in scientific meetings, and I still have papers in progress involving work completed before I started this job. I won't return to science if I feel I can't do it at a high level. The only thing that is more rewarding than science is serving your country. 

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