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Prestigioasa revistă Science publică un articol despre Ad Astra şi cercetarea din România

Science 21 November 2008:
Vol. 322. no. 5905, pp. 1183 – 1185
DOI: 10.1126/science.322.5905.1183

Reaching for the Stars in Romania
Martin Enserink

A small association of Romanian scientists, many of them working abroad, is fed up with the slow pace of reforms in their country. And politicians are paying attention

BUCHAREST–As the sun was setting, scientists flocked to Victoria palace, a massive 1930s complex in Romania’s capital and the headquarters of the country’s prime minister. Among them were hundreds of Romanian scientists working abroad, flown in for the occasion. Sipping Romanian wine, the expats chatted with local researchers, hatching ideas for collaborations or, who knows, quietly pondering a return to their homeland.

Prime Minister Călin Popescu-Tăriceanu extolled the country’s scientific talent. U.S. Ambassador Nicholas Taubman offered words of praise while encouraging further reforms in science and education. The message of the evening–part of a 3-day meeting on „The Romanian Scientific Diaspora”–was upbeat: Almost 20 years after the fall of communism, Romanian science was on the right path–its future as bright as the floodlights bathing the palace’s façade.

But to some Romanian scientists–especially the younger generation and the majority who work abroad–the positive tone was a bit of a façade itself. Look behind it, they say, and you’ll find a nepotistic old guard that controls research funding, an unfair peer-review process, abysmal starting salaries for young talent, and a lack of recognition for scientific excellence. „Despite all the rhetoric, there’s little progress,” says Liviu Giosan, a Romanian marine geologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.

The discontent has found a voice in Ad Astra, an association of Romanian scientists that Giosan co-founded in 2000. With fewer than 60 members so far–entry criteria are strict–Ad Astra seems almost laughably small. But thanks to its Web site that more than 800 registered nonmembers frequently visit, high-profile spokespeople, and a series of well-publicized policy studies it ran, Ad Astra is „one of the most successful nongovernmental organizations in Romania,” boasts Daniel Funeriu, a chemist at the Technical University in Münich, Germany.

Other members, including Giosan, are more skeptical about Ad Astra’s impact. But nobody denies that the group has captured politicians’ attention. In 2006, when Romanian President Traian Băsescu assembled a panel to map out the future of science and education, four of its 12 members came from Ad Astra’s ranks. „I don’t always agree with Ad Astra, but I want to talk with them,” Anton Anton, Romania’s minister of education, research and youth, told Science recently. „They’re a strong, clear, and independent voice.”

Out of Ceauşescu’s shadow
Both Romania’s particular brand of communism and the tumultuous transition to democracy have left their marks on the country’s science. Nicolae Ceauşescu, who ruled the country for 24 years until 1989, had a keen interest in certain scientific fields, such as nuclear physics and chemistry, that could help achieve his dreams of national self-reliance. But he neglected biology, except for a few prestige projects (see sidebar, p. 1184), and banned psychology, a field he deemed unnecessary in a socialist paradise. Research funding was generally tight, especially during the 1980s, when Ceauşescu’s decision to pay off the national debt plunged the country into poverty.

Because Ceauşescu had kept a particularly tight lid on emigration, the brain drain seen in many Eastern European countries after the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989 became a hemorrhage in Romania. „Everybody wanted to leave, and now they finally could,” says cell biologist Nicanor Moldovan, who left to do a postdoc in the United States in 1995. „It was like an elastic band that suddenly snapped.” The exodus robbed the country of a generation of its top scientific talent. The official number of scientists in Romania is about 30,000, but the country now has an estimated 16,000 researchers abroad.

Giosan decided he had to leave in 1990, when, as a student and a senate member of the University of Bucharest, he took part in political demonstrations that were brutally repressed by miners, called in by then-president Ion Iliescu. He got out 3 years later and started his graduate studies at the State University of New York, Stony Brook. But in 2000, after attending a science policy meeting in Bucharest, he realized he hadn’t turned his back on the country for good. The conference, organized by other young scientists from the diaspora, was supported by his former teacher, mineralogist Emil Constantinescu, who had been elected the country’s president in 1996.

Soon after the meeting, Giosan met Răzvan Florian, a computational neuroscientist from the northern city of Cluj-Napoca who had worked at the Pierre and Marie Curie University (Paris VI) in Paris and the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center in California. Florian, a computer whiz, helped Giosan put together an „online community” where Romanian scientists could debate policy, post documents, and share experiences. Its name was derived from Seneca’s quote, „Per aspera ad astra,” or „Through hardship to the stars.” „That’s how I envisioned the battle ahead,” Giosan says.

In 2002, the duo set up an association by the same name. To be voted in, aspiring members must have a Ph.D. or be Ph.D. students, have at least one paper in an international journal, and offer a statement about what they hope to bring to Ad Astra.

More money
Financially, the position of Romanian science has greatly improved since Ad Astra’s birth–but the group had little to do with that. To meet the conditions for membership in the European Union (E.U.), Romania hiked public spending on research from a paltry 0.2% of its gross domestic product (GDP) in 2004 to 0.6% this year. The figure is slated to grow to 1% in 2010. The country’s GDP itself has been growing fast as well since 2001, and E.U. membership has brought access to so-called structural funds, some of which are used for science. In a few short years, many scientists say, money stopped being the problem.

But many other concerns remain. Compared with countries such as the Czech Republic and Hungary, Romania hasn’t been nearly as successful in reforming its science system, says Giosan. Due to the massive brain drain, power has remained in the hands of communist-era scientists whose productivity is low. Many publish only in the hundreds of Romanian journals, whose circulation is often limited and whose main goal seems to be puffing up authors’ resumés, Florian says. According to an Ad Astra analysis, only about one in three scientists in Romania has ever published in an international journal.

Persuading young scientists to stay and replace the old guard is tough. Although veteran scientists now earn salaries comparable to those in Western Europe, starting Ph.D. students can get paid as little as €300 per month. That makes recruitment very difficult, says Ştefana Petrescu, who heads the Institute for Biochemistry in Bucharest. Romania has also been faring poorly in E.U. competitions. For instance, it didn’t win a single one of the prestigious new grants–300 for beginning researchers and 275 for more established scientists–awarded in 2007 and 2008 by the European Research Council.

Ad Astra’s biggest complaint is that the way Romania distributes its growing science budget–through grants disbursed by the National Authority for Scientific Research (ANCS) and its subagencies–is flawed. Many reviewers have no knowledge of the topics they’re supposed to judge, says Florian, who says the government should enlist foreign experts. „You may propose a project in quark-gluon plasmas, but the reviewer may know little about nuclear physics and write that plasma problems were solved 20 years ago,” says Nicolae Zamfir, who returned from the United States in 2005 to become director general of Romania’s National Institute of Physics and Nuclear Engineering.

Ad Astra has fought back by lobbying and debating online–and by studying and documenting the problems. Florian became a part-time scientometrist who meticulously keeps score of the country’s achievements. In 2006, he published a „white book” showing that entire national institutes in Romania produce little more than some small research groups abroad. Ad Astra’s national university ranking, modeled on the global index published by Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China, shook up the academic pecking order and revealed that many universities are scientific lightweights.

A little patience
To many young Romanian scientists, the wave of activism was a breath of fresh air–even an inspiration. Veterinary scientist Marilena Lupu says she wanted to come back to Romania after working in the United States for 3 years but was worried about the scientific climate; she took the plunge after discovering that she wasn’t the only one who wanted to improve the research system.

But not many have followed her–perhaps a sign of how much improvement is still needed. So far, about 30 expat researchers have taken advantage of national and European „reintegration grants.” Still, the government is listening to Ad Astra and other critics, says Anton, the science and education minister, who took that job last month after 4 years as the president of ANCS. „I want the young people to be happy,” Anton says.

Acknowledging problems in the grant-review system, Anton says that the government has already raised the bar for reviewers. He would like to hire foreign reviewers as well, but that has proven impossible, he says; expat researchers don’t have time, and the number of proposals is vast. Anton urges a little more patience with the older generation of scientists, however. They were educated when publishing in Western journals was discouraged, and now they’re told that only international papers count–„that’s a pretty big change,” he says.

Some Ad Astra members say they can see the group’s work beginning to pay off. The presidential advisory committee, chaired by psychologist and former education and science minister Mircea Miclea–another Ad Astra member–has raised awareness of the problems, says Technical University’s Funeriu. All nine major parties participating in the 30 November parliamentary elections have committed to new investment and reforms in science and education. Other scientists say that the government has been serious about reforms, and Petrescu credits Anton for „being very open and reform-minded.”

Ad Astra’s founders are perhaps least impressed about what the group has achieved. Florian agrees that widespread media attention to his studies has made the public familiar with the problems, and science administrators are more prone to use reform-minded language. But he doesn’t see much real change at universities and labs. He has been successful himself, however. Together with a colleague, he set up a small institute for cognitive and neural science in Cluj-Napoca, which managed to bag a research grant. (Sometimes the system does work, he concedes.)

Giosan returns to his homeland annually to study the Danube delta, a key area for environmental research. „The country is still very close to my heart,” he says–but he’s been unable to get Romanian funding, and he can’t envision himself moving back anytime soon. Despite Ad Astra’s best efforts, Giosan still sees primarily hardship for Romanian science–and few stars in sight.


Correction: Mircea Miclea is not a member of Ad Astra association.


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