BARCELONA--Criticisms of the government's handling of the Prestige oil spill may have claimed the first victim in the top echelons of Spanish science policy. On 24 January, the government announced that it had accepted the resignation of Rolf Tarrach, president of the Higher Research Council (CSIC), Spain's main basic research agency. However, Tarrach suggests that he is being made a scapegoat for the government's stumbling response to last November's devastating spill.
Tarrach, a theoretical physicist at the University of Barcelona, was appointed head of CSIC in September 2000. Even before the oil spill, his tenure was not characterized by smooth sailing. On 21 October, he sent a letter to Pedro Morenés, state secretary of scientific policy, in which he threatened to resign if the ministry did not find a solution to the salary gap between CSIC scientists and their university counterparts, who earned up to 10% more. The differential was causing a "brain drain of CSIC scientists" to the universities, Tarrach says.
The situation deteriorated after the spill. In a 24 January letter to Science, 422 scientists accused the government of failing to adequately take into account the views of the scientific community. Although no government official was singled out in the letter, some researchers pin at least part of the blame on Tarrach. He has shown an "incapacity of leadership," charges Juan Eugenio Iglesias of the Institute of Materials Science in Madrid. Tarrach, he says, has demonstrated that "he serves the government rather than the scientists."
If that's the case, the government has found an odd way to express its appreciation. On 24 January, the conservative newspaper ABC announced Tarrach's resignation. Tarrach himself says he learned of his resignation from the news article; he blames his fall on the Science letter, which generated widespread press coverage in Spain that day.
In a written statement, the science ministry explained that Tarrach resigned because he "wished to return to the academic life." A spokesperson declined to comment on suggestions that the Science letter precipitated Tarrach's departure. Ironically, the CSIC official most responsible for dealing with the oil spill--Emilio Lora-Tamayo, CSIC vice president and head of the agency's scientific commission on the spill--is being tapped as Tarrach's successor.