Unprecedented attack: anger over Bulgarian science 'snub'

Scholars attack state's treatment of renowned Academy of Sciences. Matthew Reisz reports

December 16, 2010

Concern is growing about the future of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, with thousands of academics from around the world signing a petition protesting its treatment.

Nadezhda Marinchevska, head of the Academy's screen arts department, said that since it was founded 141 years ago, "no government has ever dared to ruin it. Now we are suffering an attack that has never been attempted before, even in Communist times."

A petition from the Civil Movement for the Support of Science and Education in Bulgaria, which has been signed by 5,700 academics and scientists from around the world including three Nobel laureates, speaks of "a chronic shortage of funding" and "a premeditated policy to strangle financially the leading Bulgarian scientific and educational institutions".

The Academy employs about 17 per cent of Bulgaria's researchers, and produces almost 60 per cent of its scientific output.

Yet in what the petition calls "a blatant snub to intellectual endeavour when compared with the threefold increase in spending for sport", the institution has seen its already reduced subsidy for 2009 cut back still further to €31 million (£26 million).

The joint funding to the Academy and Sofia University (which is responsible for a further 30 per cent of Bulgaria's scientific output) in 2011 will drop to 0.12 per cent of the country's expected gross domestic product.

Alongside the financial pressure, Prime Minister Boyko Borisov last month announced plans to transfer control of the Academy's 42 constituent research institutes to the Ministry of Education, Youth and Science.

The result, according to Professor Marinchevska, will be the effective end of academic autonomy in Bulgaria, since "we expect no protection for the institutes or researchers, and the arbitrary acts of bureaucrats will be final and indisputable".

She pointed to a sobering parallel with the plight of the Georgian Academy of Sciences, claiming that "it was practically ruined after a 'reform'" introduced by the World Bank. One of the main advisers involved in Georgia was Simeon Dyankov, now serving as Bulgaria's minister of finance.

Ronald King, emeritus professor of mathematics at the University of Southampton, who has collaborated with a number of Bulgarian scientists, said it would "seem extremely unwise to risk damaging the one institution that has done so much to foster scientific research in Bulgaria and maintain its high international esteem".

A strongly worded letter condemning the government's actions has been sent to Prime Minister Borisov by Juri Engelbrecht, the president of All European Academies, which represents Europe's scientific academies.

Sir Adam Roberts, president of the British Academy, has added his voice by calling upon senior officials to "reconsider the cuts to a vital part of Bulgarian national life and of the Bulgarian economy".

Sir Adam noted that "in these very difficult economic times, many countries are making investment in knowledge and research a priority, and are even increasing their investment at a time of cuts elsewhere".

matthew.reisz@tsleducation.com.

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