Bulgaria in the cold as European Union freezes its innovation funding

First published in Nature, 1 February 2018

European Union science ministers are due to meet on 2 February in their bloc’s poorest member state — Bulgaria — to discuss future EU research policy. For the host nation, it was supposed to be a chance to showcase its ambitious plans to boost economic growth by attracting international research institutes to the country.

But the timing of the event is awkward, to say the least. In July, Bulgaria had been due to receive €150 million (US$186 million) from the European Union to build facilities for research and innovation, under a programme that aims to boost economic growth in poor regions. The programme, which was expected to give Bulgaria €700 million between 2014 and 2020, is designed to help with the costs of research infrastructure.

However, the EU authorities withheld the money after Bulgaria failed to identify enough sufficiently qualified scientists to evaluate the proposals. The authorities had demanded experts with three or more publications with at least five citations in the top journals in their subjects. Then in November, the Bulgarian government cut its 2018 science and higher-education budget by around 25%, a move it had planned in anticipation of the windfall.

The decision has frustrated scientists in Bulgaria, because they had wanted to use the new infrastructure to forge links with researchers outside the country. “Now, we cannot prepare proposals because we are not going to have the infrastructure,” says Ana Proykova, a physicist at Sofia University and an adviser on European research infrastructure to Bulgaria’s government. She says that the government should reinstate the funds it cut from the 2018 science budget. “We are still fighting very strongly for the funding procedure to be re-opened, even if it is in the middle of this year. Otherwise, our budget is going to be very tiny.”

To continue reading this piece, please visit https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-01374-x

Protest, diluted

This article first appeared in Research Europe, 27/04/17

Last week’s March for Science brought together scientists and their supporters in more than 600 world cities. In 2017, a year of political upheaval, this is reassuring. Scientists are starting to raise their voice as a community, protesting against government cuts and challenging alternative facts and the ever-increasing pressure on academia to prove its impact.

However, that researchers now feel they need to remind politicians and society of their value is frightening. It is a sign of dark times when academic scientists, usually detached observers, feel compelled to speak out and carry placards.

It could even be argued that the scientific community is still not protesting loudly enough. The marches, for all the cleverness of their signage, were polite affairs. About 10,000 people turned up in London. They marched quietly and sedately to Westminster, where they dispersed by 3pm.

Talking to marchers, it was clear there was no consensus on the message. In London alone, people protested against Trump, Brexit, climate change, stem cell research and sexism. Most are valid causes for concern, but protesters could neither say how any of these concerns could be addressed, nor make a case for the crucial role scientists could play in solving these problems, and why they currently feel they can’t.

Some protesters were more to the point. Individual posters called for more evidence in policymaking. Others voiced concerns about scientific independence and the continued assaults on research budgets.

And some were in it for the fun. Dressing like the mad scientist of cliché, with lab coats and out-of-control hair, they took a stab at public preconceptions about what science is. But in this mish-mash of causes and costumes, a clear message was lacking. The organisers stressed repeatedly that they wanted “those in power” to listen. But to what? Apart from a few chants about peer review, the London march was largely silent.

Any effort to highlight the growing pressures faced by the scientific community and show the public that scientists play a crucial part in democracy is to be welcomed. The marchers brought together communities of researchers scattered all over Europe and the world, and flagged up their concerns. But the next step up must be more concrete: we need proposals for governments to become more open to, supportive of—and reliant on—scientific expertise.

The risk, if this is not done, is that scientists will appear self-serving. Compared with health centres, primary schools and elderly care, universities seem well funded. If they cannot make their case, the public might condemn scientists as ivory-towered whiners.

The march organisers said they wanted to show the world that “lots of people care”. But to truly make things better for the scientific community, this care must be turned into proposals for action. Otherwise last week’s marches, and any subsequent protests, will remain little more than a photo opportunity.

Anger and discontent do not always have to express themselves through burning cars and flying rocks. But in attempting to bring everyone inside its tent, the March for Science risks not being heard at all.