Graffiti on a building near the Palace of the Parliament, in Bucharest.
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Virginia Hughes
Graffiti on a building near the Palace of the Parliament, in Bucharest.

Romania’s Science Problem: A Tale of Two Florins (Part 1)

On September 12, 2001, as many of us recoiled from television footage of airplanes on fire, 25-year-old Florin Ţibu headed to the Bucharest airport. For him, the day’s line-up would be chaotic, yes, but also exciting: his first flight, his first trip outside of Romania, and the first step of his new life as a scientist.

Ţibu flew to London’s Heathrow airport, and it was everything he expected of the West — clean, friendly, and full of overpriced fast food restaurants. After another flight and a long drive, he reached his new home at Liverpool Hope University. He was in the U.K. for a year, working on a Master’s degree in psychology. A few years later, he came back to England for his doctorate. Then, shiny new Ph.D. in hand, Ţibu did what the vast majority of Romanians who get professional training abroad do not: He went home.

I met Ţibu in November, in Bucharest. He is a post-doctoral fellow for the Bucharest Early Intervention Project, or BEIP, a 13-year study tracking the brain and behavioral development of Romanian orphans. I had gone to Bucharest to shadow Charles Nelson, one of the three U.S. scientists who launched BEIP, and to meet some of the orphans. But Ţibu opened my eyes to another problem. Romania, a democratic country of 19 million people and part of the European Union, has shockingly few scientists, and even fewer successful scientists.

The problem is complex but boils down to too little money and too much corruption. Nature reporters Alison Abbott and Quirin Schiermeier have been closely following Eastern European science over the past few years. As their pieces attest, Romania’s university system is based largely on meaningless titles and personal connections, and few science professors actually do scientific research. The country has also been through several high-profile plagiarism scandals; even its prime minister seems to have plagiarized parts of his Ph.D. thesis. In 2009, a young, foreign-trained chemist named Daniel Funeriu became the country’s research and education minister, and enacted reforms — including more research funding, more merit-based competition and rigorous evaluation by international scientists — to fix the many holes in the country’s scientific infrastructure. But last year a new government was voted in, Funeriu was pushed out and his reforms were swiftly reversed.

Romania is a long way, geographically and culturally, from us in the United States. For many people reading this post, Romania’s science problem may seem abstract, irrelevant, or both. That probably would have been my attitude, too, if not for meeting two young Romanian scientists named Florin.

Both Florins grew up in the 1980s under the oppression of communism and both, against all odds, became successful working scientists. Florin Albeanu — whose story I’ll share in a later post — did it by leaving Romania, whereas Florin Ţibu stayed. Both Florins are part of a younger generation of Romanians who believe it will be possible, one day, to reform their country’s corrupt university system and fund science based on merit rather than cronyism. Whether they’re right is anybody’s guess.

When Florin Ţibu was growing up, he never dreamed of leaving Romania. He was born in 1976 in Radauti, a city of about 30,000 people in the northern tip of the country. Most people in Radauti couldn’t afford a car, let alone an airplane ticket. And even if they had the money, they weren’t allowed to leave. Besides, in the 1980s, they had more pressing worries, like getting food from the state-controlled shops.

“You had these groceries where the shelves were practically empty. And there were certain days and times when sometimes quite unexpectedly they brought food and you could see people queuing, like 200 people queuing in five minutes. Everyone had heard that they had brought bread or salami or X,” Ţibu says. “And many times, I mean practically all of the time, my parents had to wake up at 5 a.m. and queue in order to buy milk.” Heat and electricity were also in short supply.

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Classic propaganda poster of Nicolae Ceaucescu and his wife, Elena

Romania’s economic meltdown happened in large part because the country’s dictator, Nicolae Ceaușescu, had spent the 1970s borrowing money — at least $13 billion — from western countries, and funneling it into ill-conceived building and development projects. In 1981, Ceaușescu abruptly outlawed foreign loans and tried to repay his debts as quickly as possible. He slashed imports and upped exports, leading to drastic food shortages. (Even in the midst of this economic crisis, with many of his people hungry, in 1983 Ceaușescu started construction on the 1,100-room Palace of the Parliament, which was to be the new home of all government offices and his luxurious personal residence. As several people proudly told me when I was in Bucharest, it is the largest building in the world outside of the Pentagon.)

Ţibu’s father was trained as an auto mechanic, his mother as a nurse, and the family was no better or worse off than any of their neighbors — with one small exception. The Ţibus had a rare luxury: a television, and a color one at that. They had it because in 1979, Ţibu’s father was one of the lucky men chosen to work as a laborer in Libya, ruled by Muammar Gaddafi. “Gaddafi was quite close to Ceaușescu, so they had some exchange schemes for workers,” Ţibu says. “My father earned like at least double or triple what he earned here.” After two years working on incredibly hot construction sites, with no contact with his family, Ţibu’s father returned with the TV. “We had neighbors pouring into our flat when the big football matches were on. Everyone was amazed,” Ţibu says.

Television sports were rare, though. There was just one, state-controlled TV channel, and it aired programming for just three hours each evening. “Two and a half of them were about how great communism was and how great our leader was,” Ţibu says.

From a very young age, Ţibu says, he knew not to speak badly of communism or Ceaușescu — nor to speak highly of America or the West — outside of the safety of his home. He remembers once when a classmate was caught with a $1 bill in school. The classmate and his parents were interviewed by the police. “The scandal was huge,” Ţibu says. The same was true in bigger cities. “I heard this from people who lived in Bucharest. If you went by the embassy of a Western country and you raised your eyes and looked over the fence, and particularly if you stopped and had a good look at it, you would have been spotted by agents who were planted around,” Tibu says. “They would have followed you and they would have taken you to the police. It was that bad.”

Despite the extreme censorship, even as a child Ţibu had heard about America, and idolized the very idea of it. “We heard that people were free to speak whatever they wanted to. And we heard that there were well-paid jobs, and that people could afford having their own car, and that you had access to sweets and Coca Cola and food and heating,” he says. “That was heaven, for us.” In school, he was thrilled to be assigned to the English language class, rather than Russian, French or German, not because he thought he’d ever go to America, but just to be a bit closer to its culture.

On Christmas day of 1989, when Ţibu was nearly 14, Ceaușescu and his wife, Elena, were executed by revolutionary forces. Video footage of the event* aired on the national television channel. All of the police in Radauti fled, Ţibu says. “They knew they would have been killed by the people.”

After high school, Ţibu studied nursing, following in his mother’s footsteps. But he didn’t like it, so he switched to psychology with the aim of becoming a therapist. That would have been impossible just a few years before. In 1977, Ceaușescu closed down all psychology departments at Romanian universities, citing “ideological purification.” In 1982, he banned psychological practice altogether. (According to the American Psychological Association, he was incensed by research on transcendental meditation, which he thought would “undermine public order.”)

Ţibu earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of Iasi. During his last year, he found a job through a newspaper ad to be a research assistant at the National Institute for Sport Sciences. It wasn’t lucrative — pay was less than $100 a month — but it was pretty flashy. Ţibu’s job was to provide psychological counseling to the men’s Olympic gymnastics team as they prepared for the 2000 summer games in Sydney. Ţibu loved the job and was given a bonus of one-year’s salary after the Olympics. “They weren’t very good, but it had been their best performance ever,” he says, laughing.

“On the other hand, I felt pretty overwhelmed and unprepared,” Ţibu says. “I realized that I might get more interested in more technical aspects, rather than clinical apsects of psychology. That’s when I thought that research might be good for me.”

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Florin Tibu in Bucharest Florin Tibu in Bucharest

In his college psychology courses, Ţibu had learned about famous research experiments and some basic ingredients of research, like the definition of a hypothesis and a t-test. But he never practiced science, and neither did his professors. After browsing webpages of psychology graduate programs outside of Romania, Ţibu was floored to see that most universities had bona fide research departments. He spent the next year trying to get into a research job or postgraduate program. At a job fair in Bucharest in 2001, he met a recruiter from Liverpool Hope University. Based on Ţibu’s experience at the Olympics, the recruiter asked him to join the Master’s program.

Ţibu’s post-9/11 flight experience was perhaps a foreshadowing of the many challenges he would face during that first year in the U.K. He struggled with English for the first few months. The university paid for his tuition but offered no stipend, so he worked nights and weekends as a carer in a nursing home. (Even making minimum wage, the pay was far better than Ţibu was used to: He earned about £55 pounds a day, equivalent to a month’s pay in Romania.) His visa expired after a year, so he had to return to Romania before he had completed his Master’s.

In early 2003, browsing the same Bucharest newspaper ads that had gotten him the Olympics gig, Florin found a job as a research assistant for the BEIP. He was hired, he thinks, because he spoke English well and had studied abroad. “Those who manage to go usually don’t come back,” he says. As part of the BEIP team, Ţibu learned rigorous research methods and had many interactions with other ambitious scientists, both from the U.S. and Romania. He started thinking he might have a shot at getting into a solid Ph.D. program abroad. He was right, and in the fall of 2007, he moved back to Liverpool to begin his training at Manchester University. He earned his Ph.D. in developmental psychopathology at the end of 2010.

Most people in Ţibu’s position would not have come back to Romania. Since the country joined the European Union in 2007, it has been much easier for Romanians to work in Europe. But Ţibu never considered moving away permanently. He and his girlfriend (now wife) wanted to be close to their aging parents. “But also, it’s just, this is our home,” he says.

Moving back wasn’t easy for him, even with his impressive credentials. Over the course of ten months, Ţibu applied to dozens of jobs, mostly for private companies or NGOs. He didn’t even get interviews for most of him. Then, luckily, the post-doc position with the BEIP opened up. He’s not sure what’s in store for him should the project lose its funding, but he is optimistic that the Romanian research tide is changing.

“In the younger generation, there’s an increasing number of people who studied abroad, either at the Master’s or Ph.D. level, and who have come back. And depending on luck and on circumstances, they can now get into university positions,” he says.

For example, he says that his best friend is a psychology lecturer at Iasi. “Once you’ve spent years abroad and you’ve seen how open and transparent the system is, and how the academic ladder is based on competence, you just can’t come back to the old mentality.”

Next week, I’ll share the story of a Florin who left Romania to become a neuroscientist, and is now trying to boost Romanian science from afar.

*You can watch riveting (and graphic) video footage from the Ceaușescus’ 90-minute trial and execution here.

Update: One sentence of this post has been corrected to reflect that Ţibu’s Ph.D. was in developmental psychopathology, not psychology , and that he earned it in 2010, not 2011.