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Strengths and weaknesses of Romanian scientists reflect the society at large

Interview with Karen Schmidt, environmental journalist


In this issue, Ad Astra opens a new series of articles entitled "From outside" that will present studies and opinions of foreign researchers, teachers, and policy makers on Romanian science and education issues. We start the series with an interview with Karen Schmidt, environmental journalist and a former Fulbright Scholar in Romania (2000-2001) that was taken by our collaborator Sorin Cheval, himself a Fulbright alumni.

Sorin Cheval (SC): Karen, please tell us why you chose Romania for your Fulbright scholarship. Did you have a previous interest in that part of the world?

Karen Schmidt (KS): Like many foreigners, I was guided to Romania by the hand of fate rather than by careful planning. I was interested in teaching environmental journalism and there were only a few countries requesting Fulbrighters to do that. Romania was one of them. It turned out that the organization my husband works for also had an opening for a program director in Bucharest. We hadn't considered going to Romania before, but we thought it would be an interesting place for us to learn about the language and culture, especially since my husband's father is Romanian (born and raised in Canada). We both applied for the positions and got them.

SC: What were your research/professional objectives in Romania? Can you tell us more about your teaching experience in Romania?

KS: My main assignment was to teach at the University of Bucharest. I taught courses in Feature Writing, Environmental Journalism, The Media in America, News Reporting and Writing, and Media Law and Ethics. I taught most of these in the Department of Journalism, but also some in the American Studies department. Since we were planning to stay in Bucharest for two years, I also wanted to learn about the main environmental issues affecting Romania and do some freelance articles for American and international magazines.

SC: What did you know about Romania (e.g., culture, society, science) when you took off for Bucharest?

KS: I knew very little. Like most Americans, I associated Romania with Ceausescu and totalitarian Communism, with Nadia Comaneci and wonderful gymnasts, with Dracula and Transylvania, and with gypsies, street dogs and abandoned children. Of course, these stereotypes came mostly from the American mass media. I also knew from my husband's family that Romanian was a Romance language, people were Eastern Orthodox Christians, and I had heard about dishes like sarmale and placinta. The tourists' guidebooks described Bucharest as an "aesthetic torment."

I have mostly written about science and I was forewarned that the Romanian scientific establishment was "backwards." One magazine editor in England snidely joked, "I hope you know how to changed the wheels on a horse cart," and did not believe I would find any science stories worth reporting. Actually, most journalist colleagues and editors seemed puzzled that I would choose to go to Romania. Before departing, I tried to find out on the Internet about Romanian scientific institutions and current research, and found very little information, but I did think there was a good chance I could write about the Carpathians, the Black Sea or the Danube Delta. I expected that I would have to gather most information on the ground.

SC: Did your expectations fit the reality? What did you find different?

KS: Of course, my preconceptions were far too simplistic. Mostly, I found I never knew exactly what to expect each day in Bucharest. It's a place of stark contrasts and contradictions. There were times when it felt very European and incredibly sophisticated-at conferences, fashion boutiques, art exhibits and theater productions. At other times it felt to me like a giant village-with muddy men riding in the claws of backhoes, old ladies selling handfuls of herbs and wooden spoons, packs of dogs following me in a park. I was surprised at how many layers there were under everything. That made Bucharest incredibly interesting to me. I think it provides great material for novels.

But Bucharest is terribly frustrating for journalists, who are looking for facts and generalized truths. I was rather shocked that so many people distrusted books, reports and facts. Indeed, I found it was very difficult to get good information and I came to understand why most Romanians are so skeptical. But how can you learn, advance, grow, develop, make decisions, test hypotheses, solve problems, etc.-on both a personal and national level-without reliable information? I think many Romanians do not understand the importance of good information, or how to recognize and use it. Coming from a scientific background (biochemistry) and a society where we actually have a problem with too much information, I felt a little disoriented by this sense of a slippery reality.

SC: Please tell us your impressions about Romanian research. In your opinion, what are the weak points of Romanian research? What are its strong points?

KS: My exposure to the Romanian research establishment is limited. However, I can say that I was impressed by most of the scientists I interviewed for an article I wrote on the Danube delta. They were like scientists the world over-dedicated to understanding how nature works and to solving problems. I think they had benefited from working and studying abroad and from exposure to other scientists in the international community.

The strengths and weaknesses of Romanian scientists reflect the society at large, I believe. There are brilliant and well-trained scientists in the country who are passionate about their work. Their main challenge is the reality of Romania: little funding, outdated equipment, little public appreciation of their work, little past data to work with, and corrupt institutions. I think the good scientists have survived in such an environment only by being even more immersed and committed to their studies, as well as by maintaining a sense of integrity and humor. They should be commended! Of course, others abuse their knowledge and power, or skew their data to fit some political end. You can find scientists like that anywhere in the world, but the pressures to sacrifice the science may be greater in Romania than in most countries.

SC: Did you feel any "scars" from the communist period that still affect the research community? There are voices speaking about a gap between generations that is more noticeable in Romania than in other countries. Did you feel it?

KS: Yes. Speaking generally about Romanian institutions, there's still a strong sense of hierarchy, distrust among group members, and secrecy from the public. And yet these attitudes seem to be changing rapidly in the society at large. I did notice differences in the generations. For sure, many people over 40 seemed emotionally "scarred" to me in the sense that they tended to be more paranoid, subservient and secretive. In contrast, 20 year-old students were often eager to challenge the old hierarchies and to embrace the idea of "knowledge is power," although they weren't sure how to go about it. Interestingly, many young students asked about how to work in teams; unlike their elders, they were aware that this was a valuable skill they needed to learn. While these students have not been so scarred by Romania's past, they mostly lacked the confidence that they could work together, challenge authority, and find information. These are things most American children learn in public school. I think more Romanians will learn this, too, as younger teachers move into the schools.

SC: If you were a young Romanian scientist what would your strategy be in order to make a career in scientific research taking into account the very low salary, the poor infrastructure, the bureaucracy, the mentality gap between generations, and so on?.

KS: I would say absolutely to try to get experience abroad, for the exposure to international standards, for the access to better equipment and libraries, and perhaps most importantly, for the inspiration of working with other scientists in a team. After that, I think each individual must decide if they should stay in Romania or leave. There are different advantages and disadvantages to staying and to leaving, but in the end, you have to figure out what will work best for you and then work towards that. For those who decide to stay, I think it's important to stay connected with other young scientists who have been abroad and who are also eager to rebuild Romanian scientific institutions. It would also be smart to try to work with the older Romanian scientists who have the most integrity and respect internationally.

SC: What can you say about environmental protection in Romania? Are people conscious enough about this issue? Based on your travels in the country, do you believe Romania has a clean/spoiled/very spoiled environment?

KS: Environmental protection in Romania is weak but that's not surprising considering that the government is still in transition toward democracy. Generally, you need good laws, fair enforcement, and public awareness in order to achieve protection of resources like air, water, fisheries, etc. Right now environmental laws are being developed and will be influenced by the EU accession process. But it's not clear at all that the laws will be fairly enforced. And the public is not aware that they could play a role in environmental protection--for example, by demanding better garbage service and recycling. This could change with media campaigns and with economic rewards for cleaning up the environment--for example, if recycling became a way for average people to make extra money.

I think that environmental awareness in Romania is low because the first priority for everyone is economic survival. But that should not rule out the consideration of environmental issues. Environmental issues should be framed in terms of "sustainable development." Romanians are not ready to think about preserving nature for its own sake; even in the U.S. this is the hardest argument to make to the public. But a clean, healthy environment also has economic value. Most Romanians don't realize that their country is a natural treasure, and that they could make a good living from eco-tourism and organic agriculture, while also preserving the mountains, wetlands and wildlife. Overall, Romania is not that polluted and it is far more biologically diverse and beautiful than most outsiders or Romanians realize. In the future, this environment could be very valuable, especially to other Europeans who have already lost too much of their native landscape.

SC: You published an article in Science on Danube delta. Please tell us its story. How would you describe your interaction with Romanian researchers during the documentation phase? How interested were the editors to publish a paper about Romania?

KS: I had trouble getting editors interested in stories from Romania, as I described earlier. In part, it was because they thought there's no new research here. Also, they felt that there was nothing more to say after so many stories were published in the early 90s on the environmental disasters uncovered after the fall of Communism. When I finally got approval from Science to write about the Danube delta, they wanted to steer me away from the theme of sustainable development as an experimental goal a decade after Communism. But eventually I convinced them to do the story my way. Still, the story was not seen as a high priority for publication, particularly after September 11, and it took several months to appear in print. Fortunately, they gave it three pages and it turned out quite nicely in the end. (see Science, 16 November 2001, pp. 1444-1447).

The Romanian researchers I interviewed were mostly helpful and professional. However, they were not very experienced in working with journalists. Some, especially those connected to the government, did not seem to appreciate the opportunity of getting their story, their voice, and their information publicized in an international magazine. I did not always have their full attention, or enough time to talk to them. They were sometimes difficult to reach and to schedule appointments. Sometimes they hesitated to provide documentation. They also did not seem very aware of the work of others in their field, perhaps due to lack of journal subscriptions. Or maybe they did not want to acknowledge a supposed competitor.

U.S. scientists also used to be more this way a couple decades ago, but they have become much more open to the public recently. Romanian scientific institutions should follow their example and do more to promote themselves and their work by making information and interviews available to journalists. I think they will quickly see what the American researchers now know: media exposure is usually good for generating interest and funding for scientific research. Take advantage and talk openly to journalists. Organize scientific meetings to promote discussion among colleagues and invite some journalists, too. In the process, think about what the general public is interested in and make sure you explain your work in plain language that journalists and average people can understand.

SC: What are your plans for the future relative to Romania?

KS: I hope to return for shorter stays so that I can learn more about Romania, write more articles, do more teaching and visit old friends.


Ad Astra • Volume 1, Issue 2, 2002 • From outside
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