Institució Catalana de Recerca i Estudis Avançats (ICREA) is a foundation impulsed by Catalan government and Catalan Foundation for Research and Innovation with objective to recruit researchers in Catalan academia institutions.

According to the official web site, ICREA has around 230 permanent ICREA professors in all fields of science, technology and humanities.

Each year ICREA offers around 20 permanent contracts for researchers to work in Catalan academia (in 2013 call only 15). This is a significant financial effort from the Catalan government taking into account the size of Catalonia. In these circumstances  one could expect that transparency, accountability and publicity in the distribution of this significant amount of public money to be a first priority for authorities to justify such effort.

However, the reality is different. Although the money is public and come from the Catalan budget, ICREA is created as a private foundation. As a result, the Law on Public Administration (Ley 30/1992, de 26 de noviembre de Régimen Jurídico de las Administraciones Públicas y del Procedimiento Administrativo Común) is not applied to ICREA. The result is shown below:

ICREA Public Administration (*)
  • In the relation with ICREA:

The members of the selection committee are not identified; the principles of composition of the selection committee as well as the expertise of the members are not public and not known.

  • In the relation with public administration the citizens have the following rights:

To identify the authorities and staff under whose responsibility the procedures are handled.

The results of the call are NEVER published. The names of selected people becomes known after they sign the contract and start working. Obligation to resolve. The administration is obliged to issue a clear decision on all procedures and notify whatever form of initiation.
The selection process is strictly confidential. The candidates receive only e-mail with “yes” or “no”. To know, at any time, the status of the procedures, and obtain copies of documents contained in them.
Final results are not published and as a consequence, allegations are not accepted. To formulate allegations and produce documents at any stage of the proceedings before the hearing procedure, which must be taken into account by the competent body to draft the proposed resolution.

Such practice adopted by the direction of ICREA goes against the universal standards of Open Society. The decision not to publish the final results of the call contradicts in spirit the fundamental right to access to information (one of the basic human rights recognized by international law, country constitutions, 80 national laws) promoted by numerous human rights organizations in Europe, Access Info, and Spain, Coalición Pro Acceso (Acabemos con las decisiones secretas).

The importance of an effective right of access to information has a solid basis in international and comparative human rights law …  The right to access to information held by public authorities is a fundamental human right which should be given effect at the national level through comprehensive legislation … based on the principle of maximum disclosure, establishing a presumption that all information is accessible subject only to a narrow system of exemptions. (see source)

For example, the Coalición Pro Acceso has defined ten essential principles that should be included in a future law on access to information in Spain (el derecho a saber in Spanish), some of them are listed here:

  • The right to access to information is a fundamental right of any person
  • Principle of public information: secrecy and denial of information are the exception
  • Everyone has the right to appeal the denial of access or failure to reply to their requests

Nothing can be done if the society (Universities, ICREA professors, Catalan gouvernement) silently tolerate the situation. Here, it is proposed to answer few questions which may serve a basis for future changes towards fully transparent, open and clear selection process, which will not leave a room for conflicts and rumors created by mystery and obscurity surrounding the hiring process.

“We must tell the committees that decide on grants and positions not to judge papers by where they are published. It is the quality of the science, not the journal’s brand, that matters.” (The GuardianRandy Schekman, Nobel Prize in Medicine 2013.

Do you believe that a usual practice to publish FINAL results of the call should also be applied to ICREA?

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Interesting observation: about half of the votes against transparency (IP addresses) comes from UPF…

In contrast, strict confidentiality around the hiring process makes the whole program vulnerable towards critics which puts in question the validity of the call and the existing signed contracts, thus making the program unstable at a long term.

Do you think that the names of the members of the selection committee (not referees) should be clearly identified?

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It is essential for top level ICREA professors entering the program to pass through a clean selection process, which validity is not under question and does not reflect on their scientific reputation. Thus the transparence of the call at any stage and maximum publicity should be the main priority.

Do you believe that transparency, accountability and publicity in the ICREA calls are essential for the stability of the program?

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ICREA call “criteria” are not concrete and have pure declarative nature: “only very strong candidates”, “outstanding research record”, “excellent leadership capabilities” and cannot be used to judge particular candidates. These criteria together with strict confidentiality and non-public results leaves more questions when answers and potentially is a source of conflicts which may potentially lead to collapse of the whole program.

In order to get insight and try to understand the reluctance of the ICREA management to provide information about the distribution of money and even the names (and place) of selected candidates, the histogram showing the actual distribution of ICREA’s among Universities and areas was constructed.

The idea was the following: most of Catalonian Universities are more or less the same in terms of quality in international and national rankings. The position of most of them is around 200 or below in top world Universities, so there should not be a big difference between Universities for potential candidates. Thus, one could expect a homogeneous distribution of selected candidates among the areas proportionally to the size of the Universities. The research centers, which may provide additional funding and better conditions for the candidates and thus be more attractive, are excluded from the histogram as well as other Universities outside Barcelona for the sake of clean comparison. The number of ICREA’s in each place is normalized by the number of students in each University. This allows to take into account the size of the Universities. The result per scientific area is shown below:

Distribution of ICREA professors per area in different Universities

Distribution of ICREA’s among Barcelona Universities. The histogram shows that small sized Universitat Pompeu Fabra (UPF) receives comparatively large financial support from ICREA program in terms of personal (original data from the analysis of ICREA web site).

Small Univerisitat Pompeu Fabra (UPF) oriented mostly on Humanities, Social and Life sciences receives the largest number of ICREA professors (42), even more than 5 times larger Universitat de Barcelona (UB), hosting half of students of Barcelona (34). This number is normalized by the number of students to show the difference. For comparison, a similar size to UPF, Universitat Rovira i Virgili (URV) receives only 5 ICREA professors in all the history (almost 10 times less!). The reasons of such bias towards one particular University is not known since the information about selection process is not public. Non-normalized data corresponding to 2011 is shown in the table:

ICREA Professors (absolute value)
UPF UB UAB UPC
Humanities &Social

27

15

9

0

Naural Sciences

0

15

7

4

Life Sciences

15

4

7

0

Could it be possible that due to some reason the best candidates apply to UPF, not to other Universities, thus explaining such bias? In this case the scientific production would reflect this difference. However, if we plot the average numer of publications per researcher  in 2011 of ICREA’s, it shows the homogeneous distribution among areas and Universities with the average value around 3 papers per year. Good result, but it is more or less comparable with the scientific production of a regular University professor who have teaching duties in the first place.

Average number of publications per ICREA per year and per area

Average number of publications of ICREA professors in Universities of Barcelona per ICREA per year available from the report 2011.

Although the error bar of the data is large (manual counting), this histogram does not show that UPF has better record in terms of scientific publications as the previous histogram would suggest. In contrast, UPF benefiting the most from the program with the largest number of ICREA professors (26) in Humanities and Social sciences,  has publication rate around 1 paper per year per researcher which is even less than the publication rate of their colleagues from the same area in UB and UAB. In addition, some of ICREA professors include conference proceedings in the list of publications, thus even this statistics is too optimistic.

Classificacion de las universidades

Despite such strong bias in financement, national ratings (although they can be also biased) show that UPF holds only 10th position which is well below, for example,  URV in Tarragona. Thus, there are questions to ask to the direction of ICREA, in particular, why such big number of ICREA professors in UPF does not reflect on the research quality present in the above ratings? One could expect quantitative difference.

“Critics claim that the power structures in many universities are dominated by nepotistic networks that tolerate and even promote all manner of non-meritocratic and unethical practices among members, while coming down hard on those who dare speak out against them.

According to Spanish educationalist Jose Penalva, 98 per cent of Spanish university positions are won by internal candidates selected by their academic colleagues. The free flow of personnel between local politics and senior university management means that these professors, in turn, are often in hock to political interests” (source: http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/420782.article)

Unfortunately, this result is only based on a partially available data which may not be exact and not reflect the actual situation. In addition, this comparison takes only into account ICREAs in Universities in Barcelona (which can be compared between each other), while the researchers in research institutes are not present here since some of them have additional funding not available in the Universities as well as additional support through the Institutes in terms of personnel and infrastructure, thus the comparison is not justified. As a result, the productivity of these researchers can be really impressive.  However, these speculative thoughts based on partial data are legitimate since the society who pays for the program has right to doubt about the efficiency of the management, while it is the ICREA direction who has the responsibility and the obligation to constantly prove that this money is well spend and the recruitment process corresponds to highest international standards. The existence of these questions along with this statistics suggests that something may be wrong with the recruitment process and as a consequence the distribution of money among the Universities.

There is a discussion of possible improvements of the program in  “Suggestions“.

18.10.2012 The site had more than 300 visits in one day and in total 100 votes. This means that the topic is right and relevant.

Changes:

The page “Organization” was removed. Instead there is a new page “Suggestions” with some useful suggestions from the comments of ICREA professors etc. Objective of the site is to create an interactive and open discussion platform for possible changes in ICREA through a public action because the direction is not open for discussion and reluctant to any changes.

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17 Responses to “ICREA senior positions”

  • softmat:

    Any comment and vote would contribute to the discussion of transparency in the structure of ICREA. Please support.

  • Raymond Rodriguez:

    I really enjoy reading the blog that you wrote. Such intelligent piece of work on ICREA Shadow – Luck of transparency and publicity in ICREA professor senior call' is truly remarkable!

  • Gustau Catalan:

    I completely agree with the principles espoused here, but I cannot yet see how to solve the practicalities for the specific remit of ICREA. A degree of discretionality is probably inevitable when one has to compare scientists from disciplines that are not directly comparable, i.e. one cannot apply the same set of public, transparent and “objective” criteria to a social scientist, a biologist, and a mathematician, say.

    Moreover, though the current system has the important drawbacks you mention (opaque decission-making by a small group can easily be biased), it also has important advantages: the small size of the management makes ICREA more agile and responsive than the usual public hiring processes. Having been through both types of selection in the past, I prefer ICREA’s. I should also like to add that not all public entities publish the names of their applicants or the reasons for chosing or rejecting them. Public universities outside of Spain hire at their own discretion.

    Perhaps, rather than building bureaucratic safeguards during the selection process, one should instead apply “stress tests” to the results of such selections. I don’t actually know what is the solution but the main point I am trying to make is that in making ICREA more transparent, which we probably should, we should also make sure that we don’t burden it so much that it becomes just another bureaucratic and sluggish public body.

    • softmat:

      – one cannot apply the same set of public, transparent and “objective” criteria to a social scientist, a biologist, and a mathematician
      This is not necessary. What is necessary is to compose professional and competent commissions in each field. They will decide about objective criteria in their field. University and ICREA professors can compose such commissions. In the end they will work and collaborate with these recruited people. It is not acceptable when some unknown committee assign people to institutions while the instituions are excluded from the selection process.

  • softmat:

    I think, the example of CNRS in France is good. Because everybody (University professors, CNRS) can participate in the selection of new members. It is free, no management cost and the commissions are more professional. Everybody knows what is going on. Since there is only one call per year, there is no need in “fast reaction” and I sincerely do not see the reason why to keep two directors in ICREA. They are not experts, they nether understood my problems or what I do and all communication with them was completely useless.

  • Eduard Batlle:

    I indeed believe that informed evaluation would be of great help to applicants. This being said, I call for caution on the application of the public administration regime to ICREA. We have many examples of Spanish/Catalan scientific institutions that select people through such regime that unfortunately are far from excellence or from being transparent. ICREA represents an unprecedented success in the Spanish science arena. Such exception is in large part the consequence of the recruitment procedure. It is obvious that it has some degree of unfairness and subjectivity; some good candidates may not be selected whereas the committee may decide to award the position to a candidate who, in somebody else’s opinion, has a worse track record. Yet, my impression is that ICREA has selected a vast majority of outstanding scientists over the last years compared to most public institutions. The constraints and inflexibilities imposed by the public administration regime would have been a major hurdle to the success of this process. On another note, ICREA accounts for its activities to the Government as the rest of foundations. As a matter of fact, the research institutes for which many of us work are also established as private foundations and apply selection procedures similar to ICREA. Also, I do not understand the comment about “integrity” in the e-mail. Is there any reason to doubt about the integrity of the people that runs ICREA?

    • softmat:

      Comparison with Spanish public institutions is not fair. The budget of ICREA is enormous compared to the size of Catalonia. Why do not you compare with similar programs, eg CNRS in France? UK, Germany, Holland have also good science. Transparency and publicity do not prevent these countries to attract good scientists.

  • Oscar Alegre:

    Since the beginning of the program, more than 40 ERC Grants have been awarded to ICREA Researchers (representing more than half of Grants awarded in Catalonia and 30% of Grants of Spain). Certainly ICREA is doing horrible. I read your testimonial, and I understand you are upset for not being selected as a Senior ICREA as you requested, but try to create suspicion of the integrity of ICREA’s managers is not an acceptable reaction.

  • softmat:

    Seriously, does anybody know anything about “selection committee”? There is NO TRACES anywhere. Criteria of the call are not known. The list of experts on the official page is not real. And you trust the results that are never published?

  • Alex Bach:

    You can refer to the ICREA memoir to realize how “bad” ICREA selection committee is doing. I am proud of being part of such a great group of selected researchers and I have full confidence (as the great research outcomes that our ICREA community has achieved) on the selection and evaluation processes.
    I think that what ICREA has done for research in Catalonia has been enormous and I can only congratulate ICREA management, the selection committee, and all the ICREA researchers that have contributed to put ICREA in the world map.
    Thus, I disagree with your views.
    I would recommend to follow the saying: “if it ain’t broken do not fix it”.

    • softmat:

      Your argument with the book does not work because it does not reflect the quality of rejected applicants or potential applicants who could apply if the concurs were transparent. There are good and bad examples in the book, and it cannot be used to judge the efficiency of the selection process. But the discussion is not about the quality, it is about the transparency. Even a high quality program cannot ignore basic human rights.

  • AC Baldrich:

    I think that one only needs to give founded reasons for rejection, which seems to be your personal case.

    I would personally decouple the selection process from the evaluation. Although I would rather have some feedback given to deselected candidates, I understand that this is not done. After all, part of the interest of ICREA is to have full hiring freedom. While there are issues with the selection process itself that could certainly be improved (one of them, the number of recommendation letters requested is clearly insufficient to appoint at full-professor level), the results speak for themselves. ICREA is has hired excellent people that do excellent work, and these excellent people are making a key difference in an environment that does not necessarily/always promote high academic standards.

    What I feel is not appropriate is not to give any level of feedback in an ICREA evaluation. This is a separate issue, and as such, should be treated differently. In this case, the ICREA evaluation process should be able to flag problems well before they materialize and result in a negative evaluation. For me it is hard to imagine that from one day to the next you receive a firing letter with no explanation. While it could happen, this would be similar to a tenure case where everything has gone fine, all performance indicators met, and yet, tenure has been denied with no explanation. Rare, but it can happen. Even in this case, I do not feel that ICREA should disclose the names of the evaluators (you could canalize all you anger towards them), but rather, ICREA should 1) have warned the candidate well in advance that there were issues that could have a serious (negative) impact in the evaluation, 2) have written a short report outlining the main reasons for receiving a negative evaluation and 3) call in the candidate to discuss the case in person.

    Good luck.

    • softmat:

      Thank you for such balanced and useful comment. It would be very helpful to have a continuos evaluation, for example after 3 year, and after 4 year in person with members of the committee. Such partial evaluation well in advance could prepare a researcher for negative or positive final decision. This was not done. A simple e-mail with no explications is not sufficient after 5 years of work.
      In fact, my objective with this resource was not to canalize the anger or damage the program which is indeed very successful. I would like to convert it in open platform for new ideas which can generate useful suggestions for the future, since the direction is not open for discussion and reluctant to any changes. If you agree, I will create a sparate page with suggestions from ICREA professors. I believe that this great potential that ICREA already has is not used in decision making. Public discussion would bring a necessary “legitimacy” in the eyes of the society who in the end should profit from such program. Do you like this idea?

  • Albert Pol:

    I’m really sorry for your situation, and of course you deserve all sorts of explanations and all the reasons for the decision. However, I think that Eduard comment (#5) is fair and the key question. We are where we are, and the scientific culture of this country is/was far from the long scientific tradition of the UK, Germany, or France. I mean, what works in these countries is not necessarily useful here. ICREA was created to timely and locally develop a model to particularly address the rigidities of the Spanish system. It seems clear, as commented by others between these lines, that it has been achieved very rapidly. ICREA accounts to the Catalan Government and this should be a guarantee of transparency and integrity, especially because during the last 10 years we have had very different Governments. I honestly think that you don’t have to know the name of the evaluators. I don’t know the reviewers of my last paper or the evaluators of my Spanish or European grants, but most probably this is the only way that an evaluation process can be completely fair. Do not give up and good luck.

    • softmat:

      It should be a distinction between anonymous referees and a panel or selection committee, which take a final decision based on clearly established rules and referee reports. The members of the pannel should be clearly identified and there is no reason for anonymous decisions. Even Spanish grants identify the members of the panels, the rules have several pages and as a result of the work they provide a report.
      But the recruitment of senior professors is much more serious decision. Professors deserve a human evaluation, not only based on numbers and impacts. An interview is a usual recruitment practice.
      The same for evaluation. Why not talking in person? Many problems or misunderstandings can already be eliminated on this stage. Especially ICREA Juniors who are already present in the system. How such obscure non-transparent evaluation can be credible?

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Citations
Information must be released when the public interest outweighs any harm in releasing it. There is a strong presumption that information about threats to the environment, health, or human rights, and information revealing corruption, should be released, given the high public interest in such information. Justice InitiativePrinciples of the right to know
ICREA Leaks in Twitter: