Former Romanian Science Minister: Researchers Should Fight to Save Reforms

DUBLIN—When chemist Daniel Funeriu became Romania's science minister in December 2009, he had lived abroad for more than two decades, studying and working as a scientist in France, the United States, Japan, and Germany. As a minister, Funeriu passed deep reforms in the national education and research system, aimed at bringing university governance, academic hiring, funding mechanisms, and evaluation in line with other European countries.

Funeriu held the position until February 2012, when Prime Minister Emil Boc and his cabinet resigned amid protests against drastic austerity measures and widespread corruption. Since then, Funeriu has been adviser on education and science issues to Romanian president Traian Băsescu, who last week was suspended in a power struggle with the opposition government until a national referendum is held later this month.

ScienceNOW caught up with Funeriu at the Euroscience Open Forum, where he gave a keynote lecture about his career. Interview highlights were edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: As a researcher, you were a member of Ad Astra, an organization of young Romanian scientists that called for quick and profound reforms in Romanian research. Do you feel that as minister you have been able to bring about those changes?

D.F.: Some of the things that I was advocating together with Ad Astra were put into place. I would mention the introduction of foreign reviewers for our grant system, quite significant debureaucratization of the research system, establishing relevant and internationally validated criteria for performance, and implementing legislation for evaluation of research institutes and researchers.

There's one point where I would have liked to do more, and that is attracting Romanian researchers from abroad. The biggest problem was that at the time when I was minister, Romania went through a very deep economic crisis. Obviously it was a difficult time for people to come back. But I think significant steps forward were established, by giving the research funds to people who really deserve it and making sure that grants are evaluated correctly.

I do understand that some people would have liked to see things done a bit faster, but one has to understand that that was the rhythm that was sustainable from a political point of view.

Q: How were the reforms received by the research community?

D.F.: It was received in two very different ways. The good researchers liked it because it increased their chance of getting financing. But people who were used to getting money just because they were politically well-connected didn't like it so much, because it resulted in a loss of resources. But actually what's important is to encourage the good people, and I think we did that right. For a system to evolve, you need to give power and resources to the best available people, and I believe that in time the system will regulate itself.

Q: Which of the measures you pushed have been the most controversial?

D.F.: Something that created tensions is when I nominated the advisory committees. I nominated people with very good track records in science, and therefore all the pieces of advice they gave me was meritocracy- and excellence-oriented. And that created quite some turmoil, but I always thought the minister should be on the side of the people who perform.

Also very controversial were the minimal performance criteria I established for becoming a full professor. Many people complained that they were too hard. People who usually had access to jobs no longer did because they didn't really have a decent scientific research output. But of course this encouraged a lot of the young people who do have serious science behind them, and it allows them to progress in their career.

Q: Are you concerned about a possible return to the old ways with the current government?

D.F.: Yes, I think it's not only me, I think many scientists are worried that the old friendship-based system could come back, but now I expect the community to react. I expect the winners of our reforms to react. They need to fight for the advantages that they obtained.

Q: Do you think they will?

D.F.: I hope they will. I would have liked to have the time to produce more quick winners. I've been criticized for this and this is a criticism that I accept, but one has to understand this was done during a deep economic and political turmoil.

Q: Do you feel that today in your role as adviser you can exert a lot of influence?

D.F.: When you are a minister, you have a lot of power; when you're an adviser to a president, you have less power but more influence.

Q: Looking toward the future, what do you wish for Romania?

D.F.: I wish for Romania to be led by more and more people who think in the interest of the country rather than their own personal political interest. I wish for Romania that the research and academic environment becomes free of corruption, free of mediocrity, free of plagiarism, and much more open than it is.

Q: You have now left your research career for good to pursue your political aspirations. Do you miss research?

D.F.: Painful question. You know what it's like? It's like an old love that you'd rather never see again than suffering the pain of thinking of what could have been. But yes, I do miss science.

Read other articles from the 2012 Euroscience Open Forum.