Romanian government ‘seizes control of research councils’

Overseas members and evaluators excluded in what critics claim is a power grab

May 17, 2017
Romania protest
Source: Getty

Romania’s top universities have called for the country’s research minister to be dismissed after the government removed overseas members and evaluators from national research councils.

Critics of the government argue that the move is a power grab to enable Bucharest to use Romania’s research budget to reward cronies and threaten academic opponents with denial of funding.

A reorganisation of four of Romania's advisory research councils was mooted in February, shortly after the new Social Democratic government came to power. In recent weeks critics say that members who work outside Romania have been forced out and the councils prevented from using international evaluators, sparking petitions from academics and condemnation from a group that includes four of Romania's five internationally ranked universities, which complain that they are seriously under-represented on the new councils.

Cristian Dogaru, a Romanian-born senior lecturer in early childhood studies at the University of Suffolk, was removed in late April as a member of the National Scientific Research Council, which advises the government on what research to fund. Three other councils have also been reorganised.

“It’s [about] control, it’s political control,” he told Times Higher Education. “Members from outside Romania are the most vocal, and least vulnerable” to political pressure, he added.

Romania’s research budget is “money that can be used for political clients”, he said, while control of the councils could be used to starve critics of funding.

Calls and emails to the Romanian ministries of education and research by THE asking for comment went unanswered.

Humanities scholars have also been removed from the councils, while the government, which since coming to power in January has been hit by mass protests over attempts to water down anti-corruption penalties, has also moved away from a principle of funding excellent research and instead is now focusing on local needs, according to critics.

Daniel David, vice-rector for research and development at Babeș-Bolyai University, one of the institutions that have called for the minister’s resignation, said: “Focusing our national research policy mainly on this local aspect will kill our international competitiveness in research and our effort to support the development of world-class universities in Romania.”

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The changes to the councils would undo the reforming work of a technocratic government last year, which created them in the autumn. Alina Mungiu-Pippidi, a professor of democracy studies at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin who has written about corruption in Romanian higher education, said they would “destroy” a system “which had barely been put in place to ensure better standards”.

This latest controversy is only the most recent in a lengthy fight to reform Romania’s research system and subject it to international rigour. Reforms were pushed through in 2011, designed to make sure research money went to well-qualified academics, and overseas evaluators were brought in. Yet when the government changed the following year, these reforms were scrapped.

Dr Dogaru said that he expects the latest upheaval to exacerbate Romania’s already severe academic brain drain. “Either you align yourself with the local politics, or you go. That’s the problem,” he said.

It will be difficult for the European Union to intervene, he predicted, “because it can’t be claimed it’s illegal”.

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