Spanish university appointments procedures that seem to favour internal candidates over better qualified lecturers returning from posts overseas are being challenged in the courts.
Antonio Ferriz, a Spanish astrophysicist, is taking the University of Salamanca to court, claiming that unspoken agreements between interviewers cost him a job in 1994 by favouring internal candidates over outsiders, regardless of merit.
The Spanish daily, El Pa s, said the proportion of posts filled by "home" candidates was 85-91 per cent for universities and 60 per cent at Spanish research council CSIC. A group of Spanish scientists has founded a 170-strong association specifically to combat the problem.
After eight years at Freiburg University in Germany, Dr Ferriz returned to Spain under a government scheme to encourage Spanish scientists to come back. He took a competitive examination for a tenured lectureship at Salamanca alongside two other candidates. One withdrew from the contest halfway through, saying the result had been decided beforehand. When the local candidate won, Dr Ferriz appealed.
Two foreign experts decided Dr Ferriz's record demonstrated a substantially more important contribution to science than the internal candidate. A committee headed by Ignacio Berdugo, rector of Salamanca, found it was not possible to determine relative scientific merit but upheld the original decision. Dr Ferriz's legal action could take five to ten years.
"In Germany, someone may occasionally get a university job through contacts rather than on merit," said Dr Ferriz, "but here in Spain, it is the rule."
Professor Berdugo insists that Dr Ferriz has a partial view of events and "the decision also has to correspond to the specific profile the university is looking for". He believes the root of the problem is that universities are unable to absorb all the postgraduates they produce.
Other Spanish academics suggest Dr Ferriz's experience is not unique. Alejandro Gutierrez, lecturing at Elche University, lost a contest for a research post at Madrid's CENIM institute in 1997. An analysis of the proceedings found he had 24 articles published in scientific journals and had been cited by other scientists a total of 90 times. The successful candidate had published eight articles and been cited twice.
Meteorologist Alvaro Vuidez, with 15 articles in scientific journals, was beaten to a post at Extremadura University in 1998 by an internal candidate with three, who had not finished his doctorate.
Alberto Bernues, at Edinburgh University, competed for a post at Barcelona's Autonomous University in October 1998. The winner had nine years' study and teaching experience at nearby Barcelona University, but only one paper published in a Spanish journal, compared with Dr Bernues' total of 12 papers in international and Spanish journals and a book.
These candidates believe the practice is common but no one wants to complain for fear of damaging their prospects. Scientists returning from abroad face special difficulties as they lack contacts and may be seen by established staff as unwelcome competition or potential troublemakers.
Government proposals to increase the number of external members on selection boards from three to four are seen as inadequate. Juan Gallardo, a soil science researcher at CSIC Salamanca, believes mobility should be encouraged by stopping people applying for tenure at the same institution where they did their doctorate.
Dr Ferriz thinks selection boards should be made up exclusively of foreigners. "The Spanish system is so corrupt that I do not believe anything can be achieved by minor changes," he said.
Saturnino de la Plaza, president of the Spanish rectors' conference and rector of Madrid's Polytechnic University, believes some changes may be necessary but that a few isolated abuses do not invalidate the whole system.