Manuel de León
Credit: ICMAT

Spanish math leader punished over mismanagement claims

One of Spain’s star mathematicians was removed from the head of a national research institute over accusations that the center had mismanaged public funds. Manuel de León remains a professor of the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) but has lost the directorship of the Institute of Mathematical Sciences (ICMAT), a research center run jointly by CSIC and three universities in Madrid.

CSIC and the Autonomous University of Madrid (UAM) confirmed de León's exit in an email on 29 July, one week after Spanish newspaper El Mundo first reported the news. De León confirms that he has lost his directorship over what CSIC considered inappropriate spending, and ScienceInsider has seen the internal audit reports listing irregularities.

For example, ICMAT paid for computing services in several chunks, each below the €18,000 limit over which the institute would have had to go through a lengthier procurement process. CSIC insiders say that, at least until a few years ago, these practices were “rather common” to work around cumbersome procedures. In addition, the audit flags expenses for the organization of a scientific congress that it says were insufficiently justified, but which de León says were duly authorized at the time.

The mathematician tells ScienceInsider that the institute had spent funds “in a way that the administration may dislike,” but says these practices remained within the law and that no public money was stolen. He adds that he had raised the alarm about poor management by the previous administrator, who was fired months ago.

De León considers himself a “scapegoat,” and says the audit that caused his demise was prompted by envious rivals at the Institute of Theoretical Physics (IFT), which shares a building with ICMAT. “We are the best mathematics center in Spain, and success excites envy, as well as a desire to control [us],” de León says. “This is about rivalry between two institutes, one that is very powerful and the other one that is unable to reach the same level,” he adds.

In a statement issued on 23 July, IFT acknowledges that its director, Carlos Muñoz, reported the case to the authorities as head of the public body that manages the two institutes' shared facilities. (Another CSIC researcher, who doesn't come from either the math or the physics institute, has since been appointed to that role.) But it denied that the situation stems from a conflict between the two institutes.

Muñoz merely “fulfilled his duty,” the institute says.  “We have huge respect, both on a scientific and on a personal level, for our mathematician colleagues. We are linked to them by our research interests, have worked with them in the past, and hope to continue doing so in the future,” the physicists add.

On the same day as this statement was issued, El Mundo claimed that the physics institute itself had committed comparable irregularities. IFT has denied any wrongdoing, calling the reports “unfounded.”

De León is a member of the Executive Board of the International Council for Science, a past president of the Spanish Committee for Mathematics, and a former member of the Executive Committee of the International Mathematical Union. During his 8-year tenure at ICMAT, de León helped raise the center's international profile; 10 ICMAT researchers bagged one of the European Research Council's prestigious grants.

De León says he is considering taking legal action to clear his reputation. “I dedicated 40 years of my life to science on an international level,” he says. “I have a very good public image, and I will defend my name and my family.”

In their statement, CSIC and UAM say they are taking several measures to improve both institutes' management. This includes auditing IFT's accounts and completing ICMAT's audit, launching a process to replace Muñoz when his mandate expires in September, and monitoring "in detail and openly" the institutes' programs.

*Upate 30 July, 10:30 a.m.: This article has been updated to include the formal response from CSIC and UAM, issued on 29 July.