Controversial appointment at Slovenian research agency sparks outrage

15 Feb 2022 | News

Four members of the agency’s management are dismissed from office after they object when government blocks their choice of new director

Slovenian universities and research stakeholders are decrying government interference in the appointment of a new head of the Slovenian Research Agency (ARRS).

The agency’s management board appointed cardiologist Mitja Lainščak as acting director on Saturday 28 January, a few days after the government replaced four members of the board who disagreed with that decision, and had instead twice proposed economist Lidija Tičar Padar for the job.

Jana Kolar, the recently appointed chair of the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures (ESFRI), and among the most high profile women in science administration in eastern Europe, is one of the four board members dismissed by the government.

Replacing four board members so quickly and without proper reasons amounts to “interfering with the professional independence of the institution,” Kolar said.

Research minister Simona Kustec defended the decision, telling Science|Business that Lainščak has the “international experience needed” to implement Slovenia’s new national research legislation, passed in November 2021 and which is “based on ERA principles”.

The main issue in the dismissals is the independence of the research board from government political interference – an issue that has sparked controversy in other east European countries. For instance, in Hungary, the government took over the research institutes of the Academy of Sciences and reorganised them under the oversight of a new institution, the Eötvös Loránd Research Network.

That runs counter to EU policy – and practice in most developed countries – that decisions about grants and how to award them are controlled by scientific experts who operate under a rule of law, rather than by political appointees.

The peremptory removal of the board members is stirring concern amongst researchers in Slovenia. Shortly after Lainščak’s appointment was announced, the universities of Ljubljana, Maribor and Nova Gorica signed a joint letter saying the appointment was not transparent and calling on the government not to interfere in the operations of the research agency.

“We are facing significant challenges and important projects in the field of research, and it is thus crucial that the Research Agency perform its tasks smoothly, professionally and expertly,” letter said.

The universities “expect that the agency will continue functioning professionally and independently, despite the rapid changes in its management,” University of Ljubljana rector Gregor Majdič told Science|Business.

The controversy began unfolding just weeks after Slovenia, then holding the rotating EU Council presidency, helped steer reforms of the European Research Area (ERA) - that are designed to ensure the free circulation of researchers and knowledge across Europe - through the Council of EU research ministers.

It is also less than four months since Slovenia passed the national research and innovation reforms that are claimed to embody ‘ERA principles’.  

Now, Slovenia’s universities are worried that political pressure could endanger their independence. “Any kind of political interference in their organisation and work is both unacceptable and harmful,” Majdič said.

The running of higher education and research institutions, especially of the Slovenian Research Agency and appointments to management positions and bodies in these institutions, should be based on professional competence and excellence, and overseen by appropriate, transparent procedures, the letter says.

In order remove board members the government has to prove they are not performing their duties, or not acting in line with their responsibilities, but, Kolar told Science|Business, “The government did not list any reasons for dismissing us, despite our legislation listing specific reasons for which the board members could be dismissed.”

Kolar and the other three dismissed board members are suing the government for failing to state the grounds for their dismissal.

Acting directors

The agency has had many acting directors over the past few years.

In 2020, acting director József Györkös received a majority of votes from the agency’s management board in favour of his permanent appointment, but the-then government stepped down a couple of months later and his appointment was not approved by the new right-wing government led by Janez Janša. No reasons were given.

Three more directors have been appointed since. Blaž Zmazek was acting director from April until October 2020, when Robert Repnik took over for a full mandate. Unfortunately, Repnik had to resign due to illness in late 2021, when the board proposed Padar for the job.

But government officials disagreed, dismissing Kolar and her colleagues and quickly replacing them with four new members of the board, who voted in favour of the appointment of Lainščak as acting director.

Kolar warns this sets a dangerous precedent for future governments, which might take similar action and ignore the law. “The government could simply change the legislation and say it does not need the proposal of the governing board. Of course, this would be the end of the agency’s autonomy.”

The impact of the revolving door of directors is compounded by a shortage of highly qualified employees to run ARRS. That means, “The appointment of a high quality and competent acting director is of high priority,” Kolar said.

The ARRS manages most of the research funds coming from the national government. The management board and the scientific council formulates and adopts assessment methods and coordinates the evaluation of the agency. The director contributes to the process by proposing bylaws.

National R&D reform

Although temporary, Lainščak’s six-month term is significant in giving him oversight of the implementation of the new research and innovation act.

The act sets a minimum R&D public spending target of 1% of GDP and establishes a consultative body bringing together national stakeholders to debate future priorities for research. The elements of the law that affect the research agency need to be implemented in the coming months, but that cannot happen without a new string of bylaws, which the new director can propose.

In an interview with Science|Business in November, Kustec said Slovenia’s new law is meant to show that with the right political commitment, the new targets set in the ERA policy agenda – which she steered through the EU Council - are achievable.

But Majdič said the policy changes are a cause for concern and called on the government to include stakeholders in the debate before taking any decisions. “The lack of public debate and ad hoc changes are raising our concerns that the quality and development of the higher education system are threatened,” he said.

Slovenians will go to the polls in April to elect a new government, posing even greater uncertainty about future research policy.

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