Ten suggestions for increasing performance of research groups in the field of ecology in Romania

By Tibor Hartel

Individual performance is largely dependent on the social / institutional context. This is true also for researchers. Here I would like to share my perceptions about the Romanian academic system, after experiencing some (few) Western European research institutions and groups. It is not my intention to over appreciate Western Europe in this respect, or to put Romania in a bad light. I think that we can learn from what is good in research groups in Western Europe in order to increase performance of Romanian research groups.

I think that well built research team could face better the uncertainties coming from higher levels of the system and ‘buffer’ them better – therefore the messages below are mainly for those who lead research groups, departments and / or teach students. I will restrict my analysis to the field of (applied) ecology but they could potentially be applied to other working groups like those in taxonomy, genetics etc.

First of all, I highlight some positive aspects of Romania(n researchers) because they do exist. There are many PhD students or young lecturers which are really creative and enthusiastic. Some young colleagues are able to recognize hundreds of plant species and others know the ecology of birds, fish and butterflies inside out, because they spend dozens of days  in the field every year. Some colleagues learned modeling (e.g. with R and other packages) on their own, without any external help – and they publish with this knowledge in highly ranked journals. I have colleagues and friends who publish papers in well established biology, ecology and conservation journals. And nevertheless, there are academics in leading positions (e.g. professors) which indeed do their very best in order to help their PhD students in achieve a good scientific output.

But even with these great people, Romania is still largely absent from Web of Science, and the international research when we survey for papers in ecology, biology and conservation biology. The absence of international visibility may not mean the absence of knowledge and interest, but it could be a matter of ‘leadership’ at the level of research teams / groups and institutions.

Below I formulate ten points which might improve the efficiency of research groups, considering and respecting the fact that there are people and institutions which already do their best to make academic life nice and supportable in Romania.

(i) Be more participatory and discover the beauty of sharing ideas and accepting other’s ideas. The top-down way of teaching and attitude is still present in many Romanian institutions. Many teachers and leaders don’t even realize that they do this. From the student perspective, the message is: ‘No need for thinking and judging — just be sure that you regurgitate everything the professor ‘taught’ you, and you will be rewarded with high marks.’ This way of teaching and attitude may have obvious consequences in long term e.g. when the student / young researcher goes in a ‘western’ system, where the participatory aspects of teaching are more important, and there is no absolute true answer. S/he may wake up in that uncomfortable situation that everybody has opinions except her/him. And s/he may suffer because s/he may realize that s/he may have even better opinions than many others from the group but s/he is too shy to express them. Nevertheless, such a ‘good’ student may become totally dependent on the ideas of others. This system survives similarly to military service, that is, ‘if it was good for me, it is good for you (i.e. teachers preparing future teachers)’. If I would use some concepts of resilience theory, I would say that this strategy pushes individuals and groups in a kind of ‘rigidity trap’ with clearly identifiable reinforcing loops (e.g. ‘teachers preparing teachers’ see above) which keep the system in that trap. What does it mean to be more participatory? Here are some examples: consult your colleagues before making a decision. Be transparent and fair. Make your collaborators  feel that they contributed to the performance of the team. Promote the expression of honest opinions and respect them. These are such simple things, which could make such a big difference.

(ii)    Promote thinking and enthusiasm in students and make their life beautiful with this and your group more efficient. Sometimes to be a PhD student means for an ‘old’ professor a free hand for teaching courses and managing his / her office. This happens often without the wish of the young researcher. To give an example, one higher level representative of the system may tell ‘you’ that ‘from now, you are in charge with putting together the hundreds of files for the accreditation of a new course at our University and to manage my computer’. The young researcher has not too much to say in these conditions because s/he is completely alone in this. A PhD student should do research and learn other social skills needed for further career. Contribute to these.

(iii)   Spare a room for brainstorming and promoting creative and regular meetings with your working group. In better places (as I experienced in Cambridge – thanks to Toby Gardner who introduced me to some nice internal meetings here, Leiden  – thanks to Pim Arntzen, and Luneburg – thanks to Joern Fischer) there are weekly meetings in a nicely designed room where people present their research ideas or results for discussions, while drinking coffee, tea and eating cake. It is extremely nice to feel that a whole team (up to 10 people) is with you, and if they ‘criticize’, they do it for you. Nevertheless, many interesting ideas and valuable outputs, including visions, can arise from these meetings.

(iv)  Put emphasis ‘entrepreneurship’. It is not enough to teach students science. Students still don’t know how to ‘sell themselves’ e.g. in an interview for a position or how to write a cover letter for a journal editor. They may be too shy, humble and subordinating themselves too much, for example by saying: ‘I have no opinions, but I can learn anything you give me and make everything to achieve the goals you set up to me’. Sometimes the opposite may occur when students become very pushy and offensive. I would spare some time for ‘teaching’ students how to ‘sell themselves’. This can be a fun exercise and with huge potential of learning. Of course, nobody should get frustrated after these exercises and in this respect, the outcome is entirely in the hands of the group leader.

(v)    Be more solution oriented. Students of ecology may feel that although there is an increasing crisis around us (e.g. many habitats are destroyed, populations disappear) and they would like (I am sure!!!) to approach and solve these problems, but the many theories delivered by academia are not helpful at all in this respect. The ‘science’ and information they learn may be outdated. PhD students may feel now more than ever before that inventorying several hundreds of species of plants, in an area, just for the sake of inventory may be meaningless. Our discipline (i.e. ecology and related sciences) can be indeed a very useful / powerful tool to approach and solve real world problems. And a young, enthusiastic person almost by definition would like to ‘change the world’. Keep this enthusiasm and passion for ecology in students and offer them the possibility to feel that their research and knowledge can be useful for society and can advance understanding in science. Be a good mentor. And students will be happy and satisfied with your teaching, leadership and attitude.

(vi)  Promote publishing science in international peer-reviewed journals. Many, if not all Romanian research institutions run their own ‘scientific journals’. These may appear every year or every second (or more) years and are generally unknown at international (often even at national) scales. Some of these journals are maintained because of tradition. Others were newly created, just to exist. No matter how they appeared and were created and maintained, they may be largely useless. Sorry for being so direct, but this is what I think. In some institutions group leaders may consider that publishing in these journals is a ‘duty’ for researchers working in that institution. To ground this, they may create stories about the possible difficulties for Romanian researchers in publishing abroad (the simplest one being e.g. ‘Romanians are always rejected’). This is not true. International refereed journals may be excellent targets for enthusiastic researchers who want to share their knowledge for wider, international readers and are willing to learn how to do good science and how to write. Much valuable information can be lost if published in obscure journals. My suggestion is therefore to promote submissions in international journals and help young researchers to do their very best to do good research.

(vii)  Promote interdisciplinary meetings. I was recently present in a nice PhD defense of a colleague and friend – who used statistical modeling in the thesis. This is somehow normal according to western standards – but was not perceived as such by a leading academic from that institution. This was very frustrating for everyone. In ‘western science’ statistical modeling is so much embedded in ecological sciences that many people consider this fusion of disciplines as given. In Romania the situation may be different. But when talking about interdisciplinarity I mean more: applied ecologists may talk more with representatives of other disciplines such are sociologists or economists, in order to better ground themselves in real world problems.

(viii)     Create opportunities for information and ‘scientific cultural’ flows. Many weaknesses in old fashion thinking can be counterbalanced with projects creating grounds for international workshops, seminars and lectures in Romanian institutions. There are funding opportunities for such meetings and they can be really efficient. In this way many conflictual situations between researcher generations can be ameliorated (see above, the example with the modelling colleague) and thinking and attitude could be aligned better to the international streams. The most notable landscapes (and ecological systems) of Europe are in Romania (ok – I am a bit patriotic now… 🙂 ). This can be an immense opportunity to attract international, top ranked ecologists to come here and organize workshops, associated with nice field trips.

(ix)  Establish a vision for your working group. Since the European Union, Romanian institutions have visions; therefore this concept is not new for this country. And these visions sometimes look  nice. But in most cases, it seems that these visions were not created in a participatory way but by a ‘selected’ group of people. Therefore they don’t function as such, are not shared by each member of the group and they lose their role to trace a broad trajectory for the research group. I realize that creating a vision may be hard. But I would suggest as a first step, to target very broad issues, for example like creating a good team, and transforming the institution to a place where is good to be. This may not be easy because it needs to deal with the many (kind of) tensions between the individuals which often can be latent. After building a good team, more specific targets could be established.

(x)    Select your collaborators (e.g. PhD students) by considering a mixture of values and skills. To build an efficient team, hard scientific knowledge and technical skills are important but may be not enough. You may need individuals who perform well individually but also in team. Teamwork needs more social types of skills while science requires other types of skills. Make the new colleague ‘candidate’ maniphest even with funny questions like ‘what would you do to halt the global economic crisis’? Test his / her social abilities and trust your intuitions in this respect. And involve more people in evaluation, even your existing PhD students (since basically they will work together).

I come back to what was pointed out above: these ten aspects mostly targets local institutions and teams, and not the higher level research systems of Romania. I believe that the major barrier for efficiency of local working groups is still a ‘behavioral’, and attitudinal one (and related to leadership) and not a financial and infrastructural one.

I would be interested in your personal opinions regarding these. Do these apply in your working group, and if so, how?

Thanks to my colleagues and friends working in Romanian research institutions for sharing their views and giving valuable ideas and feedback for this post.

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4 thoughts on “Ten suggestions for increasing performance of research groups in the field of ecology in Romania

  1. I guess it is a mixture of your ten points but I would add an eleventh one: promote transparency. I didn’t know what transparency is until I was confronted with the lack of transparency. For the rest I feel the same as you regarding possible paths to improve the working conditions in Romania in general and the work of research groups in particular. Thank you for writing them down for all of us.

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