University heads decry government reforms to science in Romania

01 Jun 2017 | News

Romanian government drops foreign evaluators from its national funding schemes and cuts science funding as the EU gears up for the next research framework programme

Foreign researchers have been dropped from evaluating Romanian science projects and Romanian scientists working at foreign universities removed from the national science councils. At the same time, the government has changed the rules around the funding of national R&D. 

Under the new rules, the Executive Agency for Higher Education, Research, Development and Innovation Funding (UEFISCDI) will not use foreign evaluators  on projects worth a total of RON873 million (€191 million) unless, “there is no specialist available at the national level in a certain field,” the policy document reads. Each foreign evaluator will have to be approved on a case-by-case basis by the research agency.

The Romanian government says that in addition to competence, evaluators should be selected on geographic criteria too. According to the new rules “the national selection relies on the balanced use of human resources from all development regions.”

The largest universities in the country are not happy. “It’s beyond our possibility to understand,” Mircea Dumitru, former science minister and now rector of the University of Bucharest told Science|Business.

“It’s a deathblow that sentences Romania to backwardness,” says Daniel David, vice rector for research of Babeș-Bolyai University in Cluj-Napoca.

The move can only be seen as backward step says Lesley Wilson, Secretary General of the European Universities Association (EUA). “It is a most worrying development,” Wilson said, warning that cooperation with universities in Romania will become more difficult, and that will hinder the country’s efforts to boost research and innovation.  

In response, research minister Şerban Valeca released a statement saying that the embargo on foreign evaluators will help “optimise scientific activity” by saving time and money. Valeca defended the overhaul of research policies and argued that the new system will “correlate science with the demands of the local economy.”

Among other concerns the reforms aim to address, Valeca pointed to the fact that Romania ranks last in Europe in terms of private sector investment in research and that there is a brain drain not only of top academics, but also from the private sector, in particular of the top graduates.

The aim is to support smart specialisation, frontier and interdisciplinary research and the development of technology clusters and science parks, Valeca said, inviting those opposed to the plans to talks at the ministry.

Funding cuts

At the same time, the government cut the research budget, threatening funding for current research projects and new ones.

The country will fail to meet spending milestones set out in the national strategy for research and innovation in 2014. Back then, it was planned to increase research spending year-on-year, to reach 1 per cent of GDP by 2020.

But this year, Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu broke his party’s campaign promise to boost the research budget by 30 per cent and allocated only 0.22 per cent of GDP, when researchers were hoping for 0.63 per cent.

“Ongoing research projects were blocked and didn’t receive funding for 2017,” says Dumitru.

Lack of transparency

Valeca has fired researchers appointed in 2016 to Romania’s science councils by Dumitru (who was then science minister). The appointees were to have been responsible for overseeing research funding and to check for any violation of scientific ethics.

Valeca has replaced them with researchers from the Academy of Scientists in Romania, a non-governmental organisation whose members’ scientific qualifications have been questioned. Dumitru told Science|Business that the qualifications of the new members are, “inferior” and “they are not as well prepared.”

The transparency criteria of these councils were established last year under Dumitru’s leadership and their members had a mandate of four years, but the new government elected in December 2016 decided to completely overhaul the system without explaining why the councils could not start their work. “They have worked for only a month,” Dumitru said. “The decision was political.”

Dumitru expected the position of members of the science councils to be discussed on a case by case basis, but that did not happen. The government is entitled to enforce its higher education and research policies, but, Dumitru said, “It’s a strategic mistake.”

Universities and researchers are baffled by the government decision to replace a transparent and predictable mechanism without consultation. “We are deeply concerned by the recent developments concerning the dissolution of the former independent research councils,” the EUA said.

Earlier this year, the rectors of the four biggest universities in the country, including Dumitru, signed an open letter, asking the government to rethink its strategy and start a consultation. The universities say that without open consultations, the reorganisation plans will cancel efforts made in the past year to re-establish the credibility of Romanian science.

New strains on a weak system

The changes are yet another challenge for Romania’s embattled research system. Universities have a hard time attracting and keeping young talent, as research salaries are low and the lab infrastructure is underfunded. Also, until recently Horizon 2020-funded researchers in Romania were paid less than if they worked on national projects funded by the government. “It’s not normal for Romanian researchers to be paid less for equal work,” said Dumitru.

The rector agrees that it is impossible to force researchers to stay in their home country while being paid less than western peers. Only with the right incentives they will seek to develop projects at home.

For now, the deadweight of national bureaucracy makes it difficult for universities to perform at their full potential. Universities have to deliver tens, and in some cases hundreds of kilograms of documents to convince government bureaucrats that grant money is actually spent on research.

“It looks like the bureaucratic process is far more important than the research,” Dumitru said.

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