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Top Bulgarian Science Officials Sacked

Forced out. Bulgarian minister for education and science Sergei Ignatov was fired yesterday.

Council of the European Union

The Bulgarian science and education minister, Sergei Ignatov, was fired yesterday in response to a government report on corruption in hiring and grant-making procedures. The head of the Bulgarian National Science Fund (BNSF), Hristo Petrov, stepped down as well on Monday in response to the scandal. The departures are "a very good sign," says Emil Horozov, a mathematician at Sofia University and former head of BNSF, who led hundreds of scientists in protests against corruption in December.

Petrov submitted his resignation over the weekend after the government's probe uncovered widespread irregularities, according to Bulgarian media reports, and Prime Minister Boyko Borissov accepted it on Monday. A few hours later, Borissov asked Ignatov to resign, and he complied.

Borissov and his deputy prime minister, Finance Minister Simeon Djankov, met with Horozov and other scientists on Monday to discuss the results of the investigation, which confirmed long-running accusations that the ministry had hired people lacking the required qualifications and that the grant review process was riddled with corruption.

The problem is not only with ministry staff members, Horozov says, but also with the laws governing the ministry. "It would be good to see honest people" in the two positions, he says. "But what we need is a new legal framework. The law is especially designed to enable those in charge to steal money." Horozov says that Djankov agreed in their meeting yesterday that the laws should be revised.

Horozov was appointed head of BNSF in January 2010. Shortly after taking the position, he criticized the fund's policies and established a commission to investigate corrupt funding practices. He submitted his report to Ignatov in November 2010; after no action was taken, he resigned in February 2011 and published a summary of the report himself a month later.

That report found that foreign reviewers "except in rare cases, reviewers from abroad were incompetent," sometimes lacking any academic credentials. Reviewers were not chosen to evaluate certain projects or even fields, but were allowed to choose which projects they reviewed. It also found that some reviews had apparently been ignored by officials making funding decisions. Negative reviews were ignored for roughly half of the funded projects, and positive reviews had been ignored for many projects that were not funded.

Horozov continued his protests, and last year organized a petition calling for BNSF's 2012 grant decisions to be nullified. More than 1200 scientists ultimately signed the plea, and several hundred gathered to protest in front of the science ministry in December. Horozov also asked officials from the European Union to investigate the situation, including European Commission Chief Scientific Adviser Anne Glover. At a Berlin conference in November, he met with Glover, who he says was well-informed about the situation and "was extremely helpful." He credits pressure from E.U. officials and the upcoming parliamentary elections this summer for prompting Borissov to remove Petrov and Ignatov.

Glover confirmed that she had been watching the situation with concern. "I'm very pleased to hear that there has been progress in addressing the current allegations of corruption in Bulgarian science," she tells ScienceInsider. "I look forward to talking with scientists in Bulgaria to ensure that as we go forward, the funding of science in Bulgaria is subject to the same rigorous peer review as we would expect anywhere else in Europe."

Horozov says he is cautiously optimistic. "Even if the next minister is again corrupt, he or she would be very careful how things are done. If nothing else, the corruption won't be quite as egregious," he says. He says the next protest, planned for Wednesday in front of the prime minister's office, has been postponed. "Perhaps it will not take place if we see that changes are going well," he says. "But if the changes don't happen, there will again be protests."