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

Romania’s science reforms prompt boycott

This story was first publised in Nature on 6 June, 2017

Researchers in Romania are stepping up protests against controversial government science reforms. Hundreds of scientists at leading research institutions say they will refuse to sit on national panels that assess and award grants, after the Romanian researchers’ association Ad Astra called for the boycott on 30 May. But not all scientists in the country support the move.

Since Romania’s current government took power in January, it has replaced formerly independent research councils with state-controlled bodies and has thrown international scientists off review panels. Panels can now only use international scientists to help select grants if no Romanian expert can be found — and even then, only if government officials approve it.

The government has told Romanian media that the changes are to help “capitalize on Romania’s national potential”. But researchers say that they are the latest in a series of policy backslides, whereby Romania — which this year celebrates a decade in the European Union — is retreating from international scrutiny of its research funding, and reintroducing political interference into the grant process.

“It is inconceivable for an EU country to intentionally forbid European expert evaluators to participate in national competitions for funding research,” says Daniel David, vice-rector for competitiveness at Romania’s Babeș-Bolyai University in Cluj-Napoca. “Just by this decision, researcher competition gets under political influence,” he says.

Papers please

Last month, Romania’s government said that scientists had to provide certificates showing that they have their university’s permission to participate in the evaluation process. Officially, this is to provide confirmation of a researcher’s work status at their organization — but Ad Astra sees the paperwork as a government ploy to approve only researchers who won’t be too critical of grant applications. Its boycott asks researchers not to provide the certificates. “The degradation of research management in Romania has reached a worrisome level,” says Ad Astra member Lucian Ancu, who adds that he has received many messages of support for the boycott. The Romanian research ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

After Romania joined the EU in 2007, its government hoped to encourage local scientists to apply for excellence-based European research funds. In 2010, the government introduced laws to increase domestic merit-based research assessments and reduce political interference in grants. Those policies were popular with the most capable scientists at top universities, says Daniel Funeriu, Romania’s research and education minister from 2009 to 2012. But others resented them, he says.

In 2012, some of the reforms were rolled back, and the latest moves to exclude overseas experts effectively complete the reversal of these policies, says Funeriu. The government can now decide who gets grants according to its own set of priorities, he says, adding that the risk is that money is distributed to a political clientele and not to excellent science.

The European University Association (EUA) in Brussels says that it deplores the research changes. On 30 May, it issued a statement calling them a “worrying development”. The number of nationally funded projects has dropped, and researchers say that calls for excellence-based grants have been shelved, adds Lesley Wilson, the EUA’s secretary-general. She notes that the reforms are part of a long chain of policy changes, which together “do not allow universities to develop long-term strategies”.

But not all scientists in Romania support the boycott. “A lot of people were really hurt by the meritocratic system, so they like the status quo,” says Costin Raiciu, a computer scientist at the University Politehnica of Bucharest. The boycotting scientists pledge that they will rejoin the approval process only when international experts are re-admitted. But the reforms might not be reversed, owing to the split between academics inside Romania, Ancu and Raiciu say. If they are not rolled back, Raiciu worries that many of the country’s experienced researchers, tempted back to Romania by the merit-based grant system, will leave again. “Without [merit-based] funding, people would either give up research altogether or move out of the country,” he says.

Eyes show that stress reduces climate concern

This article was first published on Climate News Network, 14.05.17.

LONDON, 14 May, 2017   People who are stressed pay less attention to climate change images and struggle to be receptive to messages about its impact, a study has found.

Researchers from Switzerland used eye tracking to measure how much attention a group of test subjects paid to images illustrating climate change. The goal of the study, published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, was to find out how everyday stress affects the attention that people pay to global warming, even when generally they  have a pro-environment stance.

“The results of our study suggest that individuals might be more receptive if they are in a relaxed and unpreoccupied state,” says Silja Sollberger, a researcher at the University of Zurich’s department of psychology.

Based on their answers to a questionnaire, 71 men were split into two groups with either high or low environmental interest. They were then randomly put into stressful or control conditions and shown images related to climate change, alongside other negative images.

Eye movements

By measuring the eye movements of the test subjects, the scientists, from the University of Zurich and ETH Zurich, found that all the men, regardless of their environmental stance, paid less attention to negative imagery when stressed. This was true even for those men who were interested in climate change and considered themselves pro-environment.

The behaviour of the test subjects suggests that governments and non-profit organisations running climate change awareness campaigns should think carefully about where and when they broadcast their message.

“It might be more successful to place climate change posters in recreational places rather than targeting commuters at a busy train station”

“Climate campaigns might benefit from considering the mental state of target individuals at the time they are being approached,” says Sollberger.

“For example, it might be more successful to place climate change posters or to ask people for donations in recreational places – like parks, zoos and cinemas – and on weekends, rather than targeting commuters at a busy train station or employees during their lunch break.”

Climate change education

These findings are important, as budgets to raise awareness of climate change and educate people about its consequences are notoriously low.

Unesco, the UN’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, has just $2 million a year to spend on climate change education, while the EU has a €63 million budget for climate action between 2014 and 2020. This compares with around $115 million a year spent by the fossil fuel industry on lobbying against climate change initiatives.

In their paper, the researchers admit that their selection of participant groups had an unintentional consequence. Men assigned to the unstressful conditions had on average higher incomes than those who were assigned to the stressed group. They wrote that low incomes contribute to chronic stress, which might exacerbate the effects of artificial stress placed on the candidates.

However, the researchers explain that the effects of stress on climate change interest observed in the study apply only to individuals. They say it is not possible to draw conclusions from their work about climate change attention in societies plagued by stress factors such as war or poverty.

Sollberger says that previous research has shown little difference between poor and rich countries in people’s attention to climate change. In fact, people living in poorer countries experience the impact of climate change much more strongly than those living elsewhere, which has a positive influence on their interest in the topic.

“Residents of poorer countries generally tend to be just as concerned about the environment, or more so, than residents of wealthier countries,” says Sollberger. – Climate News Network

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.

UK scientists welcome changes to controversial research reforms

First published in Nature, 28.02.2017

UK scientists who had vigorously protested against a planned shake-up of the way their country’s research is funded say they’re largely reassured after the government announced amendments to the plans.

Science minister Jo Johnson announced a package of changes last week that look likely to smooth the way for the reforms to become law — although not everyone is satisfied.

The proposed reforms would bring the country’s separate research councils together under a single, central funder, called United Kingdom Research and Innovation (UKRI), and would create a government body to regulate what UK universities teach. The latest changes are designed to soothe fears of excessive government control over what gets funded and taught in British universities, policy experts say.


Most unusually, Johnson has suggested writing into law a long-held principle in UK science funding, termed the Haldane principle — that research-funding decisions should be protected from political interference. “Decisions on individual research proposals are best taken following an evaluation of the quality and likely impact of the proposals (e.g. a peer review process),” the revised law notes.

“We applaud the government’s intention to recognize that those best able to decide what should be funded are not always politicians,” says Naomi Weir, deputy director of the London-based Campaign for Science and Engineering. “It is such a difficult thing to put in legislation, and it’s good that the government is trying to do that.”

Among other amendments, the changes include promises to maintain the autonomy of universities and, according to government documents, “specify the freedoms of academic staff to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions”.

The changes show that the government has listened to scientists before “tinkering further” with the UK research-funding system, says James Wilsdon, who studies research policy at the University of Sheffield, UK, and who also chairs a lobby group, Campaign for Social Science. “This is a serious and substantial package of amendments that should go a long way to assuaging any lingering concerns,” he adds.

Point of principle

Many policy experts note that the government has not been quick to make amendments to its proposals. Criticisms were first heard in October 2016. The draft legislation passed easily through the country’s lower chamber of Parliament, the House of Commons, but has encountered fiercer resistance this year in the upper chamber, the House of Lords, many members of which have a science or education background.

“I am pleased with the amendments,” says John Krebs, a member of the House of Lords and a zoologist at the University of Oxford, UK, who last year had warned against adopting the reforms. He says that incorporating the Haldane principle is “a significant and welcome concession”, and that he is reassured by other amendments designed to protect the research councils’ autonomy and to make sure that the allocation of research funding to the various councils remains transparent.

But another House of Lords scientist, Martin Rees — an astrophysicist at the University of Cambridge, UK, who has criticized the idea of creating UKRI — says he still worries that the new body will have too much power over what gets funded.

The law will see its next hearing in the House of Lords on 6 March — and further changes might be suggested at that stage. After that, any changes have to be agreed again by the House of Commons. But the mood among UK universities is that the reforms will now go through, says Andy Westwood, director of the University Observatory in Wolverhampton, UK, a policy think tank.

Ironically, says Westwood, the writing into law of the Haldane principle could end up serving the government more than it does researchers, because it hammers out an agreed meaning for what has until now been a vague principle of independence that could be called upon whenever researchers felt threatened by government interference.

“Haldane was probably more powerful when it was not enshrined, because academics could always shape it to fit their argument,” Westwood says.

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