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Rocks and hard places: Romanian R&D needs EU help with funding dilemma

Changes to Horizon 2020 salary rules are compounding difficulties Romania faces in attracting and retaining researchers. The EU could help by speeding up amendments on how salaries are calculated, says Daniel David, Vice-Rector for R&D, Babeș-Bolyai University

Daniel David, Photo: https://danieldavidubb.wordpress.com
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When it comes to research, development and innovation, Romania is at the bottom of every European league table. Compared to the rest of the EU member states, it has the lowest public R&D expenditure, the lowest number of patent applications, the lowest rate of employment in knowledge-intensive companies, and is placed last in the European Commission’s Innovation Scoreboard.

In a setting where public R&D expenditure is less than 0.4 per cent of GDP, calls for national research grants have unpredictable opening dates and universities spend most of their budgets on paying basic salaries, researchers have turned to applying for EU research grants coming through FP7 and Horizon 2020.

However, the adoption of new rules for calculating salaries under Horizon 2020 has added even more strain.

“Our best researchers were trying to fund their projects through EU grants, but that is no longer encouraging,” Daniel David, Vice-Rector for research at Babeș-Bolyai University (UBB) in Cluj-Napoca told Science|Business.

Following a reinterpretation of the rules for paying Horizon 2020 researchers, salaries are tied to basic salary levels in the country where they work. Romanian MEPs sent letters of complaint to EU president Jean-Claude Juncker who promised to work on changing the rules, but progress has been slow. “[The Commission] has proposed a solution that is acceptable, but that has yet to be signed-off by all EU member states,” says David.

The UBB was directly affected by the salary rules, and a group of chemistry researchers refused to sign a Horizon 2020 grant agreement worth about €300,000 as a result. “The impact has been catastrophic,” says David, with associate professors, lecturers, assistant professors and PhD students being the most affected. This could have been avoided but, to his knowledge, Romanian universities were not actively involved in the Horizon 2020 negotiations. “The UBB will be more active in the future,” said David.

National grant funding is also hard to come by. Romania spends a lowly 0.4 per cent of its GDP on research, but the funding is unpredictable and the money is scattered across far too many instruments with very low success rates, which can be a big turn-off for most university researchers.

At UBB, over 90 per cent of the university’s budget goes to paying staff and academics. “We should spend no more than 70 per cent of the budget on salaries,” says David. “The rest should go into investments in our labs and research.”

To compound these problems, the political environment does not offer predictability and a level playing field. In the first weeks of 2017, the newly installed government has decided to set up two distinct ministries for research and education, which complicates things even further for universities.

These latest developments have exacerbated the chronic problems faced by the higher education system and have left Romanian researchers between a rock and a hard place.  

Containing the effects of brain-drain

Retaining good researchers in the country is a difficult task for universities which want to compete internationally. The academic environment is “not at all competitive,” says David. The little R&D money Romania has is not always going to the best research projects, as evaluators are “somehow caught-up in political power play,” he says.

“There were researchers came to tell me that they will continue to apply to EU grants through affiliations with universities in western Europe,” says David, as securing reliable funding is becoming increasingly difficult.

For a university seeking to move up the international rankings, losing promising researchers to universities in western Europe is very damaging. “Our ambition is to enter the top 500 universities in the world, but that is not possible without strong research activities,” David said.

In a previous role as vice president of the National Research Council, David helped to set up a starting a grant programme aimed at bringing Romanian researchers back from western Europe and North America. Some came back, but once the grant period was over there were no other funding sources they could access and universities could not afford to hire them at competitive salaries. Overall, David said, “The programme was a failure.”

There are few initiatives to bring researchers back into the country. Over the years, education ministers have said they are keen to stop the brain drain and bring back researchers, but this has not been followed up with specific policies.

David believes repatriation strategies will not work unless research funding becomes more predictable and universities can afford to hire researchers, while competition for jobs in academia needs to be fairer and open to a broader pool of candidates. “Right now, this should be our main concern in Romania,” says David. While he thinks it unlikely that many will never come back, he hopes his university can still collaborate with expatriate researchers “for mutual benefit.”

Inching towards innovation

Following his appointment in March 2016, David established UBB’s first technology transfer office. Its seven employees are now looking into ways the university could utilise its 39 patents, while the university leadership is encouraging researchers to file more patent applications, to take their ideas to the market and to found spin-offs.

But there is a lot of work ahead. Romanian universities will have to consolidate their fundamental research before being able to form competitive spin-offs at the same pace as their western counterparts.

Innovation requires a strong body of fundamental research and a strong private sector, but both are lacking at the moment, “Romania does not have competitive fundamental knowledge and the economy is flat lining,” David said.

“Some say we should be funding less fundamental research and invest in applied research that can be transferred to industry,” David said. While this comes easy to most countries in the EU because they have a stock of basic knowledge and a strong economy, Romania has neither, and research funding is not a priority for the government.

“Without investing more in research to generate a stock of advanced knowledge, we won’t be capable of making iPhones. We will always have to buy them from others,” said David. 

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Related subjects: Horizon 2020, FP9