Threat to research in Spanish universities

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Sir

To help solve their chronic funding deficit, Spanish public universities are encouraging staff to bring in resources by collaborating with the private sector. This was made possible in 1983 by article 11 of the University Reform Law, which permits faculty members to sign contracts with private institutions. As an incentive, such contracts may include personal remuneration. The aim of article 11 is to promote collaboration between universities and industry through scientific and technical research projects. But illegitimate application of the law is eroding this philosophy, to the detriment of the scientific objectives of universities.

Article 11 is increasingly being used to conceal contracts offering ordinary services of low technical complexity, that have nothing to do with research and fall within the scope of private companies. These activities largely use infrastructure and staff paid for by public funds. In this way, the university is stealing employment opportunities and competing with the private sector. So universities may be undermining one of their main functions: the integration of qualified young people into the labour market.

The provision of these services by universities is also opposed to their primary objective as institutions dedicated to basic science. Such contracts, often given priority because they help line the pockets of the staff, take up precious time that would be better spent on research of wider scope and scientific value. The incorrect application of article 11 is leading to an illicit trade in which unscrupulous companies transfer routine activities to university labs, thereby reducing production costs, and academic staff obtain easy money without having to compete for funds with other researchers on the basis of proper scientific evaluation.

This will slow down scientific progress. It would be intolerable if universities became no more than vulgar enterprises supplying everyday technical services. Article 11 contracts must be regulated to ensure that they promote scientific excellence.

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Vázquez-Boland, J. Threat to research in Spanish universities. Nature 402, 852 (1999) doi:10.1038/47179

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