A Case of Self-Destructive Behavior? - Bulgaria and Its Academy of Sciences

Editorial |Author: Ognian Kassabov | December 13, 2010, Monday // 13:02|  views

Don’t let yourself be fooled! – The government of Bulgaria is actually bent on destroying the country’s best research institution, no matter all protestations that it intends nothing of the sort.

A string of attacks stretched over more than a year is now coming to its crucial point. The law on the destruction of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences (BAS) has been tabled to Parliament and is currently under review.

The draft bill is officially labeled an act of amendment of the previous Law on BAS and nowhere posits the explicit closure of the Academy. Although submitted under a thin disguise by ruling GERB party back-bench MP Rumen Stoilov, it reproduces intentions voiced over 2010 in turn by Minister of Finance Simeon Djankov, Minister of Education Sergei Ignatov, PM Boyko Borisov and Speaker of Parliament Tsetska Tsacheva. And those intentions were precisely radically dismember BAS and put it under the direct control of the central government.

The literal wording of the draft act may be consistent with the persistent assurances of the likes of Borisov and Ignatov that their proposals do not include closing down BAS. Once you throw a glance at the bill, however, you realize that those assurances are definitely not true. The bill involves the removal of the central governing body of BAS and the splitting of its many institutes into “independent” units. The latter are so independent as to be placed under the auspices of the Ministry of Education, with their fate being sealed by a decision of the Council of Ministers.

The funding for those institutes and other bodies deriving from the former Academy is to be also set at the mercy of the Ministry, and is not decided upon by Parliament as part of the official Bulgarian state budget (thus turning the remains of BAS into so-called second-level spending units).

Talk about state-directed science. Talk about academic freedom and freedom of research. But that is not the worst. For unlike Nazi Germany or Stalin’s USSR – where science misshapenly suffered state control – the current Bulgarian center-right GERB cabinet doesn’t care much about knowledge.

Apart from the general worry of placing science under the inadequate (mis)management by bureaucrats, in this case we are facing a far more imminent life threat. The passing of BAS institutes under government authority means certain closure of a sizeable part of them. This is no scaremongering, if we bear in mind (1) the glee with which the GERB cabinet has been expending less and less funds for education and research, (2) the inexplicable hate-campaign against BAS carried out by the government since assuming power. Consider the following.

In the mid-year revision of the state budget for 2010 – the failure of a budget heralded by finmin Simeon Djankov as Europe’s best – education and research suffered a cut of some staggering 40%. In public statements, both Djankov and education minister Ignatov have been persistently seeking ways to argue for disburdening the state from the need to finance education and science.

More particularly, Simeon Djankov, that esteemed researcher of World Bank fame, is perhaps the most obvious reason for accusing the cabinet of BAS-hatred. In his loathing for the institution, the finance minister has not been shy to use expressions that hardly befit a senior statesman. Characterizing the country’s best research institution as a bunch of “feudal dotards” (whatever that meant) is sufficient ground for ensuing resignation.

As things stand, Djankov’s remarks have found resonance with a certain feeling of resentment among segments of the Bulgarian population. Overwhelmed by an ill-functioning quasi-capitalist climate that they still feel alien, many Bulgarians have formed equally ill-functioning notions of such things as “the market”, “the role of the state”, “individual initiative,” and “responsibility for the public good.” Faced with their meager salaries and hobbling businesses, they don’t see the need to finance an institution that they do not feel as contributing. Everybody wants use and profit – now. Science doesn’t work that way.

Add to that the wide misperception that the Academy is a creature of the Commies – one of the lasts behemoths remaining from the era of a regime allegedly responsible for Bulgaria’s present woes – and you have a feeling of what kind of attitudes the cabinet and its finance minister are exploiting.

Face it – BAS is Bulgaria’s top research institution. Period. The Academy is putting out 60% of the scientific production of the country. Closing the Academy means obliterating those 60%. And we're not speaking only quantity here. At least as per the leading global scientometric rankings, such as those of Thomson Reuters or Scimago, BAS is by far the top research institution in the country in terms of the quality of its work.

Those facts notwithstanding, the powers that be have been trying to trick people into believing that the Academy is working at a tremendous cost to the state (the taxpayer!) and is not willing to reform. False again! In 2009-10 BAS staged a sweeping internal reorganization, reducing the number of its institutes from 69 to 42, which led to significant reductions in staff. And it has been continually introducing heroic steps to cut spending, such as asking workers to go for unpaid leave and similar measures unbefitting an EU member state.

In the “updated” 2010 budget BAS had EUR 30 M, against EUR 48 M in 2009. That is some 0.4% of Bulgaria’s GDP and won’t be any different in 2011 (in times when countries like e.g. Austria boosted funding for research as a strategic anti-crisis investment). Balancing off the meager financial input and the substantial research output, the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences might well be the most cost-effective institution in the country.

Of course, this is not all. Research and learning boost economic development. The phrase “knowledge-based economy” is not the less apt for all its triteness. Some people seem to be unable to get across their minds that even non-applied, fundamental research boosts economic development. Science and culture are very much like wealth – like Adam Smith observed about the latter, it eventually “trickles down” to benefit all.

Such strategic thinking has never been a strength of recent Bulgarian rulers. But now we have what appears to be a concerted effort to achieve results counter to all strategic thinking. Bulgaria is attempting to cut off itself what little remains of its vital brains. Why, you might ask?

The reasons can be grouped into three. First, BAS’s assets. Second, an ideological motivation of sorts. Third, an effort to replace Bulgarian academia, as it exists now, with something else.

The first is the most obvious and widely discussed. Simeon Djankov is popular not only with his insulting statements about the Academy. He has also a strong record of speculating about the benefits of selling BAS’s many properties. This is put down in print, in Bulgarian newspapers, even before Djankov assumed the position of Minister of Finance. He has even estimated their worth – some USD 250 M. A tiny amount, you may think, for dooming Bulgaria to intellectual and economic backwardness.

And the World Bank guru has expertise in that field. As an advisor to the government of Georgia, he had proposed exactly the same scenario for the country’s Academy of Sciences, ostensibly to optimize spending. Academy was split, assets were sold. Georgia’s scientific production dropped tremendously.

Then we have the ideological motivation, which, being a matter of principles, is the most contentious. Some would rather think that the state should not be in support of research and education, which must rather be placed on a so-called “market principle.” This type of thinking can be seen as gaining strength not only in backward post-Communist Balkan countries, but also in strongholds of knowledge as Germany, the UK and the US.

But then think again. Think of the commitment that the US government has always been having towards research, development, and fundamental science, including humanities. Think of the level of donorship to educational and research institutions that the German businesses have always had. For them, this is a matter not only of supporting developments that might benefit them commercially – it is much more a matter of prestige and responsibility for the common good.

Then think about the level of commitment Bulgarian businesses, as they exist now, can be expected to allot to independent research.

This second argument is nevertheless tightly bound with the third. Circles around Minister of Education Sergei Ignatov have been pressing for an increased role of private education in Bulgaria. What’s wrong with that, you might ask. But then consider that Ignatov is not only a former president of, but has also retained strong ties to the New Bulgarian University – the country’s major private university. And that he has been pressing for the introduction of the unheard-of idea of support for private educational institutions with state funds.

To boot you have the Minister of Education’s attempts to implode the university system by introducing ill-advised legislative acts modeled on his NBU inner regulations, but that is another matter.

If state-fostered education is no longer a priority for Bulgaria’s rulers, then what can we say about an allegedly old-fashioned and rigid research institution that is educating no one, but is just producing science.

Fortunately, the political climate or just the general sense of rationality among other political parties in Bulgaria is not entirely unfavorable to BAS. Up to now, all parties represented in Parliament other than the ruling GERB have spoken up quite strongly against the legislative proposal. This includes not only the opposition Bulgarian Socialist Party and Movement of Rights and Freedoms, but also the rightist Blue Coalition and the nationalist Ataka, as well as non-aligned MPs.

This is something remarkable, as it is the first time both the official opposition (BSP and MRF), and parties that usually support GERB have united against GERB, who have a large minority of 117 MPs out of 240 and have to rely on support from the Blues and Ataka.

While there are signals that reason may prevail this time over, yet we should not be overly optimistic. For instance, the Blue Coalition have tabled an alternative amendment bill that does not include the dismantling of BAS – but yet once again includes putting its financing in the hands of the Ministry of Education, instead of Parliament as it is up to now. MPs from the Bulgarian Socialist Party have proposed yet another draft bill that introduces greater financial accountability, but does not make the Academy dependent on the government.

In the meanwhile, the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences is suffering a string of paralyzing months. Researchers are facing the fact that no one might care much about their work. Already meager salaries are not paid in full. Uncertainty lingers.

Yet the situation raises depressing thoughts not only for researchers. Bulgaria is on its way of making one major step further in its lasting, self-imposed, deep economic and intellectual marginalization.

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Tags: science, research, Bulgarian Socialist Party, Blue Coalition, Bulgarian Parliament, Tsetska Tsacheva, Sergei Ignatov, Georgia, World Bank, Simeon Djankov, Boyko Borisov, education, BAS, Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, GERB cabinet


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