Bivol recently published a detailed investigation, based on the book of Prof. Emil Horozov, former Head of the Fund for Scientific Research (FSR) at the Ministry of Education and Science. A reaction of one of our readers sheds additional light on the backstage dealings in the sector of Bulgarian science. We publish his letter after a verification of the stated facts. Bivol provides right of answer, reaction and opinion to all parties mentioned in and affected by our publications.
A publication of of Bivol exposed notorious Bulgarian pollsters Andrey Raychev and Kancho Stoiychev, nicknamed “The Kanchos”, in robbing millions of levs from State funding for national science competitions organized by FSR, with the tacit blessing of all governments since the fall of Communism, until now. In the period 2008-2010, this happened through 13 projects with a total value of 4 million levs, which, although with inaccurately prepared documents and questionable concept and/or competence of the teams behind them, invariably received the maximum ranking through swapped and manipulated reviews. This issue directly touches on unauthorized State aid, which is sanctioned by the EU, but Bulgarian politicians willingly provide the funds and the cover-up for the “eminent” pollsters in exchange of manipulation of public opinion during election campaigns.
One project particularly stands out among the 13, with the impressive amount of 950 000 levs, which it has received in 2008 – project RNF01/0125 “Improving the Capacity of Research Organizations and SMEs for the Development of Cellular and Molecular Biotechnology and their Applications in Medicine and Health”. Behind the project is the company “Scientific Technology Services – NTO”Ltd., listed at the well-known address 23 “James Bourchier” Blvd, whose majority owner “Central Techno Invest” Ltd unravels the links between “The Kanchos” and “pious” banker Tsvetan Vasilev.
Kancho Stoychev, Andrey Raychev and Stoyan Chakarov are co-owners of “Scientific Technology Services – NTO” Ltd. The two pollsters are well known, and, at that time, the third partner, Mr. Chakarov, was Assistant Professor at the Department of Biochemistry at the Biology School of Sofia University. The company is dealing with an extremely wide range of activities (from consulting, biological research and molecular medicine, to intermediation for foreign persons in the country). It has gained a scandalous reputation long before 2008. The same company with three or four staff (not scientists) has been already involved in a scandal connected to the EU PHARE program in the State Agency for Fisheries and Aquaculture, where, again through a project, it unlawfully took equipment slated for fisheries. The company was forced to return the equipment to the Agency, after the prosecution became involved in the case.
In 2002, NTO Ltd. signed a permanent contract with the Institute of Molecular Biology at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences (BAS) for the creation of a joint company, according to which it would assume the renovations and repairs of the Institute’s facilities and in return it was to use them forever, while people from the institute were working on research tasks. When the truth about the unprofitable for BAS contract emerged, the Director of the institute, Prof. Ivan Ivanov, was removed from office. BAS canceled the contract with NTO Ltd. and signed a new one – according to it, NTO was to rent the premises of the Institute until the amount it invested in repairs is reimbursed. The contract expired in 2009. Adhering to the typical business ethics of its team, the company tried to deceive BAS that it had spent over 600 000 levs for the repairs, while the documented cost was barely reaching 125 000 levs.
The rules of the 2008 bid, announced by the Ministry of Science and Education, for development of scientific infrastructure, under which project RNF01/0125 was funded, included a condition for candidates to prove that they have purchased with the money allocated by the State equipment that was going to be shared by several research groups. At that time, “NTO” was renting, i.e. it did not own any premises. Its manager, Stoyan Chakarov, was not a habilitated person. Therefore, in an attempt to boast the image of the enterprise, Prof. Albena Borisova Momchilova, from the BAS Institute of Biophysics, was listed as project coordinator. She, herself, won with a project another bid of the Fund, this time on behalf of the Institute. In this conspiracy, “The Kanchos” were helped by other “loyal and reliable” prominent scientists from the former Communist State Security, DS – Prof. Rumen Pankov (Momchilova’s husband, Professor and Head of the Department of Cytology, Histology and Embryology at the Biology School of Sofia University), Zdravko Lalchev also a former DS agent (at that time Head of the Department of Biochemistry in the Biology School).
So dear reader, the question arises what happened to our heroes after Professor Horozov exposed them and attracted the attention of the European Commission to the crimes committed in funding science in Bulgaria? Was there a retribution for their deeds? Where are they now?
Due to the universal need of all governments of indoctrinating polling suggestions to the electorate, the FSR policy towards “The Kanchos” and NTO revealed the enviable sustainability and non-partisan approach, when in a controversial bid from 2012, involving the then-Head of FRS, Professor Rangel Guyrov, (who has habilitation from Angola), Assistant Professor, Stoyan Chakarov, from Sofia University, got another 350 000 levs for “Panel for Research of Individual Capacity to Repair Genetic-Toxic Disability”. The strong and organized protest of the scientific community, triggered by the multiple violations in the 2012 bidding session, resulted in the removal from office of Rangel Gyurov and Education Minister, Sergei Ignatov, and sparked the rallies that forced the government of the centrist party Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) to resign before the end of its term. It was expected that the strong public reaction, causing a two-year-long investigation and termination of FSR activities, would force the government to paint at least a temporary decency façade of the Fund and that people, who cannot easily be connected to the already publically exposed corruption of circles of companies and cronies, will be selected for its governing bodies.
The official web page, introducing the governing bodies of the FSR, reveals that the current rulers have bet on the short memory of the scientific community and its crushed ability for assertiveness after two years of lack of State funding for science. Along with many other “interesting” people in the expert units of the Fund, we discover in the list of members of the Permanent Scientific Committee of Experts in Biology and Medical Sciences the name of … Albena Momchilova, right after 81-year-old (!) Academician Vasil Golemanski (i.e. she is Deputy Chairman). Upon announcing bids, the permanent scientific expert committees appoint temporary ones to distribute the projects to reviewers who must evaluate them and essentially decide their fate. The projects can be given to independent evaluators, to people associated with competing teams or reviewers belonging to their circle of friends, who will award the maximum number of points to certain proposals, regardless of their quality and whether the team can demonstrate competence in achieving the set goals. With the presence at a high-ranking position in FSR of a loyal person, representing their projects, The Kanchovs can look boldly into the future in 2014 as well.
The “fate” of Professors Rumen Pankov and Zdravko Lalchev is also quite intriguing. Rumen Pankov is the husband of Albena Momchilova. He is closely associated with the co-owner of NTO, Stoyan Chakarov, through joint projects and guiding PhD students. In addition of continuing to be Head of the Department of Cytology, Histology and Embryology at the Biology School of Sofia University, by the end of 2011, Prof. Pankov became Vice President of the University. Thus, the associated with The Kanchos full-time agent of the State Security is now second in the University hierarchy, a post enabling effective oversight of personnel policy, the budget and the social and political position of the single most influential and largest Bulgarian university. This oversight was especially important for the role that the University and its students could play in the anti-government protests in the summer of 2013.
Academic Correspondents – Capable and Loyal to Us
Meanwhile, in 2012, Prof. Rumen Pankov and Prof. Zdravko Lalchev became corresponding members of BAS. In addition to the honorary importance of this title, which should be received only by experts with a global reputation and token contribution to Bulgarian science, its awarding is related to a long-term investment by the Bulgarian state, which commits to provide a lifetime monthly salary of 1 100-1 400 levs to corresponding members. The title paves the way to higher management positions. The 2012 competition for the election of two corresponding members in the field of Biological Sciences deserves its own analysis.
To understand it, we must explain the main internationally accepted criteria for evaluating a researcher in the field of natural and exact sciences (physics, chemistry, biology, geography, mathematics) and medicine.
(1): How many and what publications the researcher has in specialized peer reviewed scientific editions. These editions have their own rating, Impact Factor (IF), which is calculated and updated annually by the New York-based company Thomson Reuters. The international standard is that only publications in a journal with IF (the higher, the better) and/or journals/magazines listed in the register of internationally recognized databases for scientific literature (PubMed, SCOPUS, Web of Knowledge, Web of Science etc.) are considered an “asset” for the scientist/researcher. Editions outside these categories are of poor scientific quality, or they are too recent to be assessed. Publications in them have very low value.
Here, Bulgarian legislation and BAS regulations include a specific, and perhaps far from inadvertent, inaccuracy in defining what it is a scientific edition (e.g. http://physics.uni-plovdiv.bg/?cat=37):
Peer reviewed scientific editions are publications with ISSN or ISBN; editions reviewed by international databases as SCOPUS, Web of Knowledge, Web of Science, Science Citation Index Expanded, Russian Review Journal, publications included in the database of peer reviewed publications of the National Data Center, and abstracting databases such as INSPECT England and VINITI Russia.
This text allows an interpretation that equates publications ranked in international scientific databases with editions that have only ISSN or ISBN. Among the latter, along with collections from national conferences with or without international participation (reviewed extremely “casually” because the author pays for his/her participation and is assessed by colleagues, working just next door) and books published by Bulgarian University Press (also pro forma reviewing and much smaller audience than international publishers), one can also find newspapers such as “7 Days Sport” (ISSN: 1311-9869). This “loose” definition is often explained by the fact that in the humanities (philosophy, literature, philology), there are no journals with IF. However, in natural and exact sciences and medicine this is not the case, and for them, the cited rules create conditions for high-valued scientific work to be equated with tabloid articles.
(2) How highly are these publications rated by the international scientific community. A research is more valued the more it is cited in international publications and in books authored by other teams (i.e. not a post factum self-publication of some author). Quotations are provided by databases SCOPUS, Web of Knowledge, Web of Science and Google Scholar (usually bases overlap 98%). Here, BAS regulations again reopen the door for breaches, recognizing also quotes from Bulgarian dissertations and books (without self-quoting). The value of these local quotations is problematic because they often occur under pressure on the reviewer of the dissertation; are not seen by the international community and are unprovable (in Bulgaria there is no public online repository of scientific dissertations). The number of these local “Bulgarian” citations is small and does not seriously affect the assessment given by SCOPUS, Web of Knowledge, Web of Science and Google Scholar.
(3) The quantity and quality of patents in which the scientist is involved. (Archived inhttp://www.google.com/advanced_patent_search; http://www.uspto.gov/; http://www.epo.org/;http://worldwide.espacenet.com/; http://patentscope.wipo.int/search/en/search.jsfetc.). The type of patent matters (the international “weighs” more than the national), along with how and to what extend it is implemented in practice. The patents of Coca-Cola or of the pacemaker, for example, are really high achievements, as opposed to research, which has never been used in practice or has been in use only locally and for a short time (i.e., it was not good enough to reach the market).
Lets’ go back to the competition for corresponding members of BAS. Professors Rumen Balanski, Chavdar Vasilev, Rumen Pankov, and Zdravko Lalchev were the four to reach its last stage. Here is a brief summary of the various international science metrics (i.e. the important assessment of a scientist) of the candidates by 2012:
1. Prof. PhD in Medical Sciences Rumen Mirchev Balanski
Position: Professor at the Specialized Hospital for Active Treatment and Oncology, Sofia.
Topics: mutagenesis, mechanisms of carcinogenesis, DNA damage and repair, chemoprevention of cancer, carcinogenic mechanisms of tobacco smoke
Publications: 110; with IF 100
Quotations (without self-quoting): 1 475
International patents: In addition to numerous quotations in scientific publications since 2001 until now, studies of Dr. Balanski are cited in 95 international patent developments for chemoprevention of cancer. His work is considered one of the leading in the world for studying the mechanisms of cancer and therapy approaches.
2. Prof. Chavdar Lyubenov Vasilev
Position: Professor at the Institute of Microbiology “Stefan Angelov” at BAS
Topics: synthesis of proteins of the immune response and their application in clinical practice.
Publications: 60, all with IF
Citations (without self-quoting): 608
International Patents: Professor Vasilev is co-author of 4 international patents: 2007: EP1838731-A1; 2005: WO/2005/023871; 2006: WO/2006/072152; 2006: WO/2006/056031. Patents are related to technology for the production of modified therapeutic immunoglobulin formulations with enhanced anti-inflammatory and immune-modulating characteristics.
From 2003 to present, the work of the candidates has been cited 78 times in international patents of other teams working on the treatment of immunological diseases.
3. Prof. Rumen Georgiev Pankov
Position: Professor at the Faculty of Biology
Topics: cell adhesion
Publications: 59; 50 are IF
Quotations (without self-quoting): 4 653
International Patents: There are 3 citations in international patents.
The score is high. Meanwhile, the bulk of the work of Professor Pankov has been done in the US and was not extended in Bulgaria, where his score goes down. The candidate developing own topics in Bulgaria is a basic requirement in the rules for competitions for corresponding members. This rule is met by candidates 1 and 2.
4. Prof. Zdravko Ivanov Lalchev
Position: Professor at the Biology School of Sofia University
Topic: Biophysics of pulmonary surfactant and lung failure
Posts: 60; 42 with IF
Quotations (without self-quotations): 262
International Patents: None and he is not quoted.
There is a drastic discrepancy between the actual science metrics data of the candidate and the declared by him more than 180 publications, more than 950 quotations and clinical applications. The difference of over 120 publications can be explained by “low value” publications in regional editions that don’t meet the indexing criteria of PubMed, SCOPUS, Thomson Reuters and others. To attribute the difference of over 700 citations to local quotations (not stored in any database and not subject to verification) is unfeasible. International quotes are archived in databases to serve as a business card of the researcher and must be much more in number than the local ones (because the aggregate number of quoted scientists worldwide is much larger than their number in Bulgaria). A check in patent databases reveals that the candidate has no international patents or research applied in clinical and diagnostic practice. Consultations with international experts in neonatology, the lack of international patents and small number of quotations (i.e. not accepted by the scientific community), showed that contrary to the claims given by Professor Lalchev during the competition and in the press about 9 000 or 14 000 saved children’s lives, the candidate has no internationally accepted or approved for clinical use contribution to the life-saving diagnosis and treatment of respiratory failure in newborns. In Bulgaria and elsewhere in the world, they are always conducted with technology and drugs developed by teams in Western universities with whom the candidate has no connection.
These data suggest that one of the corresponding members position should have gone to Professor Balanski and the second should have been decided between Professor Vasilev and Professor Pankov. But … something quite different happened. After the voting with 48 votes, the ranking was as follows 1. Zdravko Lalchev (90% majority) 2. Rumen Pankov (60% of the vote) 3. Chavdar Vasilev (25%) and 4. Rumen Balanski (8.3%, i.e. only 4 votes).
The results of the competition are a distorted incarnation of the biblical sentence “The last shall be first.” The competition was won by the candidate with the lowest ranking by criteria, while a researcher with an excellent score was not even second (as this was Professor Pankov’s rating) and ended being last. In addition to the absurd end result, there is a breach of procedure, in which false science metrics were presented by a contestant. The question is why the jury failed to notice the obvious discrepancies between documents (which are supposed to undergo careful scrutiny) and reality, and why it made a decision ignoring the professional skills of researchers.
The answer is obvious. There is no information that Professor Balanski and Professor Vasilev have ever collaborated with DS or similar agencies, while Professor Pankov (full-time agent) and Professor Lalchev (snitch) are career DS employees and members of the team of The Kanchos, holding in its web “the business with project bids” and FSR. Members of the jury consisted of academicians, some also exposed as DA informants.
So, in addition to earlier revelations, it emerges that from 2010 until now, the team of The Kanchos “acquired” through the well-known backstage mechanisms two corresponding members, a Vice President of the largest Bulgarian University, a member in the management structure of FSR and more funding from FSR, without even trying to replace the persons they are using, even though they have already become notoriously known to the public. The co-owner of “NTO” Ltd., Stoyan Chakarov, is now also Associate Professor in the Biology School of Sofia University, with publications mainly in regional journals without impact or with low impact. And “The Kunchos’ Gallup” still prophesies poll results, balancing between the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) and GERB, always ready to use its “staff” to win the single highest bid in the upcoming FSR competitions.
These events touch on a very important problem of Bulgarian society, still remaining in the shadow, amidst the economic and parliamentary wars between political forces. The problem of the state of Bulgarian college education and science since 1989 to present day and of the purposes they have been harnessed to serve. As this article also shows, they are in the grip of DS functionaries, who control personnel and distribution of money, and use them as cover-up for draining public funds to manipulate public opinion and to benefit circles of companies.
The problem is much more serious than it seems at first glance and goes beyond corruption. Worldwide, universities and research institutions are the incubators that create intelligentsia; people determining the potential and the direction of their country. Currently, the thinking and educated Bulgarians are driven out of their homeland and society loses its ability to be productive (to generate business and industry) to create its own elite, representing its interests, the ability to self-monitor and self-reflect, and becomes hostage to the repressive authorities and backstage dealings.
The potential solutions are suggested by this very story. Bulgaria is too small of a country to prevent the strong bounding and links between representatives of the same guild. This problem has been faced by many European countries, which, though without the heavy background of Bulgarian society, are also small enough so that people all know each other. In Finland and Norway, each PhD degree and above is reviewed by international experts in the field. In Germany, major projects (accreditation of institutes, professorial positions) are also often fully evaluated by foreign experts in the relevant field. Thus, although the politics is always a factor, the wrong people are not appointed at important positions and important investments are not flowing to shady businesses.
An argument against the full introduction of foreign reviewers, often used in Bulgaria, is the fact that they should be paid. Pay for reviewing a research project in Europe ranges between 100 and 500 euro per project, thus peer review of 1 000 project proposals will cost around 400 000 euros. Depending on the assessment of project proposals, then Bulgaria will give 6 to 50 million euros each year to people who will fully pay back and increase times more this investment, instead of pouring it into the black hole of corruption. The same applies to academic ranks. An academic title means a lifetime investment of the State and green light to its holder to implement personnel policy. Just the lifetime annual salaries of academicians and corresponding members, most of whom are former Communist State Security agents, cost Bulgaria 1.5 million levs per year.
It is very important for our society to force our far-from-rich country to make this major investment not in the disgraced post-totalitarian apparatchiks, but in professionals who can generate money for Bulgaria, and not be just consumers of projects. In this publication, examining an emblematic private case that illustrates the high-level of penetration of the infection, we exposed and tried to explain in an understandable way, this highly specialized and hardly noticeable to the public, and precisely because of this very effective over the years, mechanism of corruption and staff control in Bulgarian education and science, which allows The Kanchos and the likes to receive offers for their manipulative work by any government at the expense of the State, represented by FSR.
Simultaneously, we foresee a much more comprehensive plan. In order to maintain their power, the puppeteers need a less literate nation, susceptible to manipulations and without a view of the world. By placing their puppets at senior positions in universities and BAS, The Kanchos receive an additional opportunity to increase their effectiveness and the cost of their services by acquiring tools to hit on the foundation of society, on the intellectual potential of Bulgaria, making them more and more susceptible to their shamanism.
* The subtitle is of Bivol with reference to the patriotic Facebook group KLETA MAJKA BALGARIQ (Poor Mother Bulgaria).
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