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Why would I return to Romania to be a scientist?

Dan Pantos
University of Texas at Austin

The first reason has nothing to do with reason, it's a personal matter, that is: It's HOME. I was born and raised there, my family and my house are there and it's the language that I can express myself in better than any other in terms of my fears, my happiness, and my hopes.

Professionally, it requires a significant sacrifice to return to Romania for scientific research. This is true especially for those of us who choose as their field of expertise an experimental science, because as is true everywhere in the world, it poses a high demand on budgets. In Romania the experimental sciences are basically dead. In rare instances I might be mistaken, but this is the overall conclusion of someone who left Romania several years ago, someone who returns home periodically and keeps in close contact with the academic world. As the years go by I hear of more and more young scientists leaving or planning to leave Romania, that the money required for the acquisition of scientific materials (including all the scientific equipment and the scientific journals) is diminishing, that the instrument X has broken down and there is no money to fix it, that there are no maintenance contracts for any of the scientific equipment, and this list can go on. The materials and instruments are still the ones that existed 15-20 years ago, and these in many cases are of even poorer quality than what was available in the '80s (time and lack of investment being responsible for this).

Compounding these material difficulties is an equally serious and perhaps more pervasive problem, the mentality of ennui that Romanian research seems to have sunk into.  This type of self-pity ("if we don't have the things required to do research, then we'll write a book, or a review article about what's going on in our field in the outside world") further escalates the situation. This mentality has mostly resulted in relatively disappointing papers that are only marginally relevance to the scientific community, since the required journals that contained the original source of the reviewed material arrived late or indeed with missing issues. While the deficit of both results and motivation is understandable when the basic elements required for research are lacking, and while it certainly cannot be said that Romanian researchers are lazy, unfortunately in some cases this apathy has been taken to unimaginable extremes , becoming a self-defeating excuse to simply give up.

One can find culpable people everywhere... the political party X promised during the electoral campaign that they'll solve everything but didn't keep their promise, that minister Y didn't do any good... but after all is said and done, everything can be traced down to attitude. Many Romanian scientists and professors traveled abroad, saw how things are done in countries where the system works, but only a few returned and tried to apply what they've learned in their travels (this matter doesn't include just the scientists and professors; it's a common theme for many a high-ranking official or manager... this in itself being a subject that is too complex to be addressed here).  The truth is, when these scientists have returned, their contributions so far have been not much more than a drop in a bucket, due to the brick wall of a change-averse bureaucracy.

I discussed multiple times the title question with other Romanians studying abroad, but the most interesting outcome came from discussing it with Western Europeans or Americans. It's difficult to understand why a man says he'll be scientifically dead if he returns to his country, when you're coming from a society where everybody knows that there's no progress without scientific research. Yes, this is my verdict, no matter how cruel or pessimistic it sounds: "going back to do research in Romania is the equivalent of scientific suicide!" Any Romanian researcher whether in Romania or elsewhere knows it, and it's painfully obvious from the vast number of young Romanian researchers who are dreaming about the "Western world" and who are turning a fellowship/scholarship/collaboration with Westerners into a lifetime goal.

We, the ones outside Romania, didn't leave because we wanted more money or high honors, but simply because at home we weren't able to work or make a living in our desired fields. We were basically kicked out of our own country just because we were dreaming of something better. We dreamt to discover a drug for cancer, a semiconductor that would revolutionize the electronics industry, an organism that would open the door for colonization of other planets and so on... but all these are far from "doable" in Romania.

After all this, why would I still choose to return?  I would go back to be a teacher, so basically I'm answering the title question not because I would not return for "Romanian scientific research", but I would do it for the students.

I would go back because I had teachers without whom I wouldn't be here, living my dream. Yet sadly, in contemporary Romania professors are a "big nobody". They are not respected, they are underpaid and tired of investing every single emotional and spiritual resource into a job that gives them little, if any reward. Teachers are sick of what they see in schools and society, while the number of those who remain a true inspiration spiritually and professionally, decreases as times goes by. Who will replace them, when the majority of the top students in every field in every Romanian university are to be found abroad within 5 years from graduation? Who will guide the young minds that do not follow the current trend in business and law in Romania?

I would return because I'm sick of the people's attitude, especially of parents or relatives who ask youngsters that are thinking of pursuing a career in physics, chemistry or mathematics: "but what good will this do for you, this is not a real job, you won't make money out of this in Romania, why not enroll in Law or Business School because that's where the money is.  Give up this nonsense, it won't feed your family!" I'd go back because I'm saddened by the fact that the teenagers participating in the National Olympiads are rewarded for their success with pens and anti-acne lotions if they're lucky, because there are cases in which the school cannot afford to cover transportation to and from the city where the Olympiad is held. I'd go back because I'm tired of hearing, "I liked chemistry (or biology) but what would I have done if I studied that... who would hire me with a degree in that... I went to med-school instead, I don't really like it, but it's better this way." I'd go back because there is no greater sadness than to see a young person without fire in his eyes just because his right to dream was taken away, just because his dream wasn't providing financial stability.  I want to help these students fight for their dreams, to show them that dreams can come true.

I would return to try to give to the next generation what was given to me: A top rated education.  When I left Romania I was told that I wouldn't have any problems with the theoretical aspects of the subject I decided to study, my only handicap would be the laboratory work because in Romania the scientific material is aged due to the financial status of the country. Starting the first classes in an American university I was surprised to learn that whatever I studied in Romania was valuable but lagging 15-20 years behind modern science. The truth is that whatever I learned at home was accurate, thorough, and well taught. I had a solid grasp on the subject matter with a lot of depth, and found myself able to compete with and sometimes surpass my American colleagues, but there were gaps in my knowledge. These gaps existed not because I didn't study hard enough, but because those parts of the subject were nonexistent in the material taught at my home university.

This lack of actuality is a problem with the current educational system in Romania. When I left in 1999 the universities' autonomy was getting stronger and one could envision a chance for  improvement. The professors had the opportunity to change the 20-year-old textbooks, replacing them with modern ones containing all the "classical" by now, scientific advancements of the past 10-15 years. Talks with my younger friends reveal that such improvements didn't really occur, that there aren't really new textbooks (a textbook can't be considered new when the material is just ordered differently from the previous editions), that the system is ultimately the same despite the new organization that was adopted. These problems can be blamed partly on poverty, on the perpetual helpless state of the Romanian society, but overall the attitude is key. From outside Romania, my perspective is that the general attitude of Romanians seems one of reluctance to change.  This is sad, but even sadder when it seems that all the benefits of a prosperous society are expected, but without the required effort. Romanians are a hardworking people who unfortunately accept the present situation with resignation, rather than faith in real improvement.

So, would I return to Romania to be a scientist? No. I would, however, return as a teacher. I would return because I learned something from my experience abroad and I want to apply it in Romania, to make a difference. I would return to show the ones that dream that if you want it more that anything in the world, your dreams can come true. I would return because I still hope that in Romania one day everybody on the street will know that without scientific research there is no progress.  

 

Ad Astra • Volume 2, Issue 1, 2003 • Viewpoint
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