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Sweeping changes to Romanian science were announced at the same time as controversial corruption decrees that sparked massive protests in February.

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Romanian scientists rebel against a power grab by their government

BUCHAREST—Romanian scientists are engaged in a battle with their government about an alleged power grab that they say will lead to the diversion of research money to government cronies and will isolate Romania’s small scientific community just as it was beginning to nurture connections to the rest of the world.

Research minister Șerban Valeca, an engineer appointed by the new social-democratic government in January, has dismissed almost the entire membership of four councils that provide advice on funding policy, research strategy, ethics, and innovation. Valeca rid the councils of all Romanian scientists working abroad and appointed replacements including a surgeon under investigation for embezzlement, union members known for their loyalty to the government, little-known city council members, and members of obscure academic institutions that appear to exist mostly on paper. He also virtually eliminated the role of foreign scientists in grant evaluations.

The changes, announced late January and formalized in April, were initially overshadowed by massive anticorruption protests. But the academic community is now fighting back. In late April, the heads of Romania’s five biggest universities asked for Valeca’s dismissal. On 30 May, Ad Astra, a grassroots organization for scientists, urged the scientific community to boycott the evaluation process for national grant competitions. The same day, the European University Association said it was "worried" about Valeca's decisions.

In an email to Science, Valeca wrote that the reorganization was necessary to achieve the goals established by the government for the research ministry and said “the stirred agitation is useless.” His picks for the councils were guided by “objective and quantifiable criteria,” Valeca wrote, and “will have a beneficial impact on the academic and economic development of the country.” But Daniel Funeriu, Romania’s science minister from 2009 until 2012, says the real goal is to allocate money to “a political clientele instead of good science.” “It is a death sentence for all principles of good governance in a research system,” he says.

Many of the council’s members had barely begun their 4-year terms, after a lengthy selection process by Romania’s previous government. Ovidiu Andronesi, an assistant professor of radiology at Harvard Medical School in Boston, says he and many other members of one body, the National Research Council (NRC), learned they had been dismissed in an email received just before midnight on 31 January—almost at the same time as the government passed an emergency decree that decriminalized some corruption offences, sparking the widespread protests. NRC was to meet the next day, and members from abroad had already arrived here. “There was no coincidence, no accident. It had to be that night, and just before our meeting,” Andronesi says. “Their rudeness was sending a message as defiant as possible.”

Romanian science has long been struggling. The country invests only 0.49% of its gross domestic product in research, less than any other EU country, and ranks last in terms of scientific productivity. The current government has promised annual budget hikes of 30%, but the 2017 budget included an increase of less than 1.3%. Meanwhile, attempts to shake off the legacy of communist rule and boost quality have often met with political resistance. To reduce conflicts of interest, for instance, Funeriu passed legislation requiring grant applications to be reviewed by experts abroad and instituting minimum qualifications for job candidates—only to see those reforms undone by his successor.

Among the 18 members dismissed from the National Council of Ethics are renowned Romanian scientists working in France, Mexico, Denmark, and the Netherlands. “We are moving further away from world research, when we should be aiming for the opposite, for international competitiveness,” says Octavian Micu of the Institute for Space Sciences here.

Other sore points: The new councils include not a single scholar in the humanities, and some of the best-ranked universities are underrepresented—apparently for political reasons, critics say. The councils have also been suspended for 3 months, which may cause grants to be delayed, scientists say. “These disruptive changes will deepen the chaos in Romania’s research system, which already suffers from a chronic lack of predictability and stability”, says Mihai Miclăuș, a senior researcher at the National Institute of Biological Research in Cluj-Napoca.

Meanwhile, Valeca stands accused of favoring a research project that he has been deeply involved in. In March, while NRC was suspended, the government changed the national research strategy for 2014–2020 to make the Advanced Lead Fast Reactor European Demonstrator (ALFRED) a national priority. The prototype of a lead-cooled nuclear power plant, ALFRED is set to be built at the Nuclear Research Institute in Pitesti-Mioveni, where Valeca was head of the scientific board before he joined the government. “It is ridiculous. We spent a lot of money on the strategy,” says Dragoș, Ciuparu, a former secretary of state in the ministry of education who’s now at the Oil & Gas University of Ploieşti. “And then a new minister turns this project into a national priority, without any consultations with the academic community.” But Romanian Prime Minister Sorin Grindeanu confirmed the government’s commitment to the project on 24 May, citing the need for Romania to become energy-independent.

In a 23 May debate about collaboration between academia and industry, Romanian President Klaus Iohannis said he was worried about the impact of Valeca’s decisions and expressed his full support for having researchers from abroad on the research councils and grant evaluation committees. But in the current political situation, Iohannis, a former member of the National Liberal Party, does not hold much sway, and it may be too late to roll back Valeca’s decisions, says Antonio Marian Rădoi, a chemist at the National Institute for Research and Development in Microtechnology here and a board member of Ad Astra. “We don’t really have the necessary mass to oppose these changes,” Rădoi says. “We are financially dependent on the ministry.”