The head of one of Croatia's most important natural sciences institutes has lost her job. Danica Ramljak, a medical researcher who took the helm of the Ruđer Bošković Institute (IRB) in Zagreb in 2009 after working in the United States for 2 decades, was fired last week over an apparent formality. But Ramljak claims she's being punished for revealing deep-seated corrupt practices at the institute and has vowed to fight the decision in court.
"My sin is that I stopped financial profiteering of the powerful and networked people and revealed many years of corrupt dealings," Ramljak says.
The official reason for Ramljak's dismissal, made public on 5 April, is that she does not qualify as a "research associate/fellow" under Croatian law, which, as an institute director, she's supposed to do. Ramljak says that her official status, recorded in a government registry, lapsed during her time in the United States, and that it wasn't a requirement when she took the job.
Ramljak says that after she took over, she discovered several "large financial embezzlements" in past projects, involving people in important positions at IRB, the science ministry, and elsewhere. At her invitation, police and Croatia's state attorney started an investigation at the institute in 2010, which was already under investigation by the Ministry of Finance's tax administration.
In December 2011, a report by the tax administration concluded that IRB had failed to pay around $1.3 million in taxes as a result of various illegal activities by its scientists in 2008 alone. Around 180 researchers were involved in activities such as signing contracts for nonexistent students and claiming fictitious travel expenses, according to the report. Last week, the state attorney announced that Krešimir Pavelić, a former IRB laboratory head who is now the head of Croatia's National Science Council, will be prosecuted for alleged improprieties along with three IRB secretaries and accountants.
The investigations poisoned the atmosphere at the institute, and critics repeatedly called for Ramljak to step down. Ramljak says defamatory material about her was sent to the media, and that she received threats by SMS. Meanwhile, she successfully fought a government decision to store low- and medium-level nuclear waste at her institute, which sits in the heart of the Croatian capital.
Croatia's science minister, Željko Jovanović, told ScienceInsider that he appointed a new management council in February to bring "stabilization" to the institute, which had suffered from "disordered interpersonal relations" between Ramljak, other managers at the institute, and its scientific council. "Over the past 2 months I have been getting daily and completely opposing letters from two polarized streams at the institute," he says. "My directive to the council was to make decisions that would see our most important institute continue with even better quality work."
But Ramljak claims the new council did not examine her case properly and used the irregularity in her status as an excuse to get rid of her. She also says Jovanović never agreed to speak with her about the institute and has ignored achievements during her mandate, including tripling funding from E.U. projects, improving the quality of publications, and stabilizing the institute's finances. Jovanović supported the conclusion that Ramljak did not meet formal requirements to head the institute in an 8 March letter to the council.
"This is terrible for Croatian science," Ramljak says. "Not because of me—everyone can be replaced—but because of the clear message it sends to everyone else."
Correction: A previous version of this story erroneously reported that Ramljak was also investigated, and eventually cleared, on tax evasion charges.