An abruptly-announced plan to re-organise research councils raises spectre of political control over science, and sees researchers join wide backlash against new government
Angry Romanian scientists are calling on the new government to cancel its order for national science-advisory bodies to immediately stop their work, pending reorganisation.
The new social-democrat (PSD)-led government made the unexpected move on 31 January at the same time as issuing the decree giving amnesty to some officials accused of corruption. The latter was later withdrawn following a huge backlash.
A petition signed by nearly 1,000 academics and their supporters says that the non-political councils should be exempt from government control.
The councils affected include the National Scientific Research Council (CNCS), the National Council for Development and Innovation, the National Council for Higher Education Financing, the Council for Higher Education Statistics and Prognosis, National Attestation Council and National Ethics Council.
“We’re afraid the government is going to give away positions on the councils to their political clientele,” said CNCS board member Cristian Dogaru, a lecturer in early childhood studies at University of Suffolk in the UK.
Dogaru also fears that a reorganisation may allow some form of amnesty for politicians found guilty of scientific misconduct.
In the past, councils have investigated various plagiarism scandals involving top Romanian officials. “Fake – or at least questionable – PhDs are prevalent in Romanian politics,” said fellow Romanian Vasile Ersek, a senior lecturer in geography at Northumbria University, UK.
Researchers only received notice of the government’s decision late on January 31 – the night before CNCS was due to meet, an event for which several academics working abroad travelled back to Romania.
Another decision for which scientists say they have so far received no explanation is the splitting of the education and research ministry. There is not yet a clear system in place telling researchers how responsibilities will be divided between the two.
“We are now in limbo,” said Dogaru. “I tried to contact the government to get the rationale for their decision but I haven’t received an answer.”
There is a history of newly elected officials in Romania pushing institutional changes in various sectors for the benefit of political clientele and campaign funders.
The uncertainty around the councils’ future has seen scientists join the wide public backlash against the new government of prime minister Sorin Grindeanu, in office since the beginning of January.
The government’s decision to quietly approve a decree that would have decriminalised several corruption offences drew disapproval in Brussels and sparked the largest display of popular anger the country has seen the fall of communism in 1989, with hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets every night for over two weeks.
Raising old fears
In 2016, the previous technocrat-led government finalised the process of selecting members of the country’s science councils using objective criteria. Universities and researchers now fear that the PSD will use its power to change the composition of these councils and to gain political control over science.
“It has to do with controlling these councils and the activities of these councils,” says Daniel David, Vice-Rector for R&D, Babeș-Bolyai University.
Universities are concerned that in reorganising the councils, the government will inject politics into competitions for research grants.
In 2013, all members of the CNCS resigned after the government coalition led by PSD cut the budget of the main national programme for fundamental research by 50 per cent and delayed the launch of new calls. “There is this fear [of party political involvement] because the PSD government did this before, when the old CNCS resigned [en masse],” says David.
The government should have presented its research strategy and consulted with the councils before taking any decision, David said. “If the experts were to refuse to contribute to implementing the minister’s vision, only then we could have discussed the need to refresh the councils.”
“It would have been normal for the minister to come to these councils and to explain his vision,” he added.
The rectors of the four biggest universities in the country, including the rector of the Babeș-Bolyai University, have signed an open letter, asking the government to rethink its strategy and start a consultation process. Without open consultations, the reorganisation plans will, “cancel the efforts made in the past year, to re-establish the credibility of the Romanian scientific community,” the letter reads.
To date there has been no response David said. “The initiative has no logic, and the separation of research from higher education amplifies the absurdity of the situation.”