Croatian Science and University Legislation Ignites 'Stormy' Debate

Over the past few months, the academic and scientific communities of Croatia have been voicing their displeasure with proposed revisions to the national legislation governing the country's universities and its science and higher education organizations. Critics have argued, for example, that the changes would take away university autonomy and freedom of scientific expression because universities and research priorities would come under direct governmental control.

The trio of new policies, unveiled by the Croatian Ministry of Science, Education and Sports on 12 October, would replace the current 2003 Science and Higher Education Bill, which is seen widely as needing improvement. But both the content and the timing of the proposed changes came as a surprise to many researchers and academics. The new legislation would unexpectedly eliminate an elected body that oversees research ethics, for example. And the various proposals will be discussed in the Croatian parliament during 2011, an election year, and some critics have said that reorganizing the entire science and higher education sector at such a time is irresponsible because compromises could be made for political gains. The new government bills were rejected by the Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts (HAZU), which concluded that the proposed changes were "not acceptable" in a 10 November letter to Croatia's science minister, Radovan Fuchs.

Fuchs has rejected allegations that the government is trying to score political points with the new policies ahead of next year's general elections. Perhaps the legislation's most controversial proposal, one that HAZU's law experts say might be unconstitutional, is the suggested merging of Croatia's two national councils (one for science and one for higher education) into a single body, whose members would be appointed directly by the government instead of the parliament, as is currently done. HAZU officials and others have warned that such a council could be populated by nonscientists while the decision-making role of faculty heads would be much reduced. And a Croatian advocacy group, the Forum for Ethics and Development of Science and Higher Education, has called the government's proposals "inconsistent, incoherent and lacking," suggesting they would confer far too much power of politicians over science.

The new policies would also banish the National Committee on Ethics in Science and Higher Education, whose members are elected by parliament. This would leave the academic community to struggle with the widespread research misconduct the committee has so far helped uncover and pursue, according to a recent editorial by Matko Marusic, dean of the University of Split School of Medicine, and founding and emeritus editor of the Croatian Medical Journal.

Other potential stumbling block in the government's plans are its changes to the so-called pyramidal systems of scientific jobs at public institutions. The ministry calls for rigid quotas so that any institute can at most have one-sixth of its staff members as senior scientists, and at most two-sixth of its staff members as the next rank down. The same would apply to university professor jobs. This could make it impossible for scientists to progress in their career until someone else retires or moves on from the institute, critics say. Croatia's Network of Young Scientists warns that such quotas will make it difficult for young scientists to get jobs and delay progress in their careers by up to 10 years. The Croatian Academy has also criticized the pyramidal system as "radically narrowing opportunities for young researchers and practically enticing brain drain from the public universities, institutes and Croatia."

Researchers are also upset over proposed new rules for postdocs, including one requiring they obtain permission from the director of an institute to take part in a conference of other public meetings and another demanding at least 1 year doing research outside their home institute. The young scientists' network said the new policies lack strategic vision and are overburdened with unexplained bureaucratic rules—one proposal is to simply reduce the time allowed for finishing doctorates

The Institute for Development of Education, a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization that advocates for socially inclusive, democratic higher education policies, has criticized the Croatian ministry for a lack of public consultation prior to drawing up the new policy and for limiting the period for public comments to only 13 working days. The ministry said it would not make any further public statements about the proposed policies until all public consultation documents are reviewed. However, in a statement sent to "connect portal," an online site for scientific networking in Croatia, 'the Ministry said that judging by the number and the quality of comments it received, the public outcry over the proposed policy was "stormy." More than 1000 comments from more than 100 institutions were sent in the 13-day comment period.

The ministry has replied to complaints about such a short public consultation period by saying that although the consultations formally closed on 1 November, it will continue taking comments until the legislation is discussed within parliament. Resolving the various issues concerning the proposals may be crucial to the future health of Croatian research. According to a recent UNESCO report, the number of scientists decreased in Croatia by 22% between 2002 and 2008.

Mico Tatalovic is a deputy news editor at SciDev.Net

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