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Cutting-edge biomedicine research center faces ax

Employees accuse Valencia regional government of mismanaging flagship institute

For weeks now, visitors to the Prince Felipe Research Center (CIPF) in Valencia have been greeted by a sign that says: "For sale. White rooms, completely new." What was meant to be, in its own mission statement, a European center of reference in cellular therapy when it opened in 2005 is now teetering on the edge, with half the staff laid off last Friday and the rest forced to accept pay cuts.

Located next to the spectacular City of Arts and Sciences - another symbol of Spain's economic boom times - the CIPF shows all the signs of mourning. Its row of flags are at half-mast, and dozens of signs with black crêpe hang from the front of the building.

All the workers' protests have proved useless, as has a public call by 4,000 scientists calling it "a great blow" to biomedical research in this country. "It is precisely at times of crisis when one sees the importance of investing in research," said the letter.

Even Nature magazine ran a story about the layoffs and the uncertain future now facing a center that ranked fifth out of 143 Spanish research institutions, according to this year's Scimago Institutions Ranking. "The CIPF is one the most important centers for stem cell research in the south of Europe," stem-cell researcher Ludovic Vallier of the University of Cambridge told Nature. "It was a flagship for Spanish research, demonstrating its intention to modernize."

Some of the research that is now being eliminated includes work on cancer, regenerative medicine and stem cells - fields that hold great hope for diseases like Alzheimer's or Parkinson's, and which have brought the CIPF its greatest acclaim.

A sense of decline has been felt here since the summer, but has accelerated in the last two months. In September, the entire scientific committee resigned in protest over the spending cuts effected by the government of the Valencia region, headed by Alberto Fabra of the Popular Party (PP). Later came the labor adjustment plan that laid off 113 workers and changed the working conditions of the other 150, including pay cuts of 12 percent. Also, 14 of the 26 existing labs are being closed down, while the center has lost 1.7 million euros in state funding from the Science Ministry, because of the regional government's excess overall deficit.

And all that is after regional authorities halved the amount of money spent on the research center, down from 9.8 million euros in 2009 to 4.6 million euros in 2011, with further reductions contemplated for next year.

Few people could imagine it would come to this when the 32,000-square meter, state-of-the-art facilities were inaugurated in March 2005. Around 70 percent of the total cost (60 million euros) was paid for with European funds, on the premise that the Valencia government would fill it with meaningful research activity and guarantee its upkeep.

Its chief since day one, Rubén Moreno - a PP politician who was top aide to then-Health Minister Celia Villalobos - explained that he wanted to turn the center into a research engine that would transfer knowledge and economic activity, similar to science and industrial parks in the United States: "A belt of companies that feed the center and also feed upon it," is how he described it at the time.

But six years later, not one of these ancillary companies has been created, and Moreno is being blamed by many employees for mismanaging the center. He himself stepped down a month ago in order to run for Congress in the recent general elections, which were won by the PP in a landslide, assuring him a seat in the lower house.

The workers' committee says that under Moreno some grievous mistakes were made, such as firing Almudena Ramón, a researcher who became famous for getting paraplegic rats to walk again, or hiring Miodrag Stojkovic, the first European to clone a human embryo for therapeutic purposes. Stojkovic resigned in 2010 after it emerged that entire passages of an article he published in Stem Cells and Development had been copied from another article in Biology of Reproduction.

Moreno is also blamed for spending 1.5 million euros on four white experimentation rooms that have never been used (now referenced in the protest signs), and for paying a company 113,700 euros to develop a computer application. The job was never completed and had to be done by a second firm, for an additional 101,650 euros.

"This site could have been incredible"

The job cuts affect all kinds of workers, from lab technicians to leading researchers. Javier Cervera, head of the Molecular Recognition Laboratory, was visited this week by Johannes Häberle, a colleague from the Zurich University Children's Hospital, a reference center for metabolic diseases in Europe. Häberle went to CIPF to learn a specific technique that was developed by Cervera's team, and which represents the ideal in biomedical research: a basic study with an immediate clinical application.

But this did not prevent Cervera's lab from being shut down or Cervera himself from losing his job. Nor was it any help that he had obtained competitive funding from the Science Ministry and the Alicia Koplowitz Foundation to keep this line of research open.

"After 38 years in research, I don't think this is the best way to end a career," says Cervera, 59. His Swiss colleague, he adds, "can't understand what's happening."

Ana Llopis, a 33-year-old technician at the Gene Expression coupled to RNA Transport Laboratory since 2005, has suffered a similar fate.

"My job as a technician was to organize the laboratory: to prepare the culture medium, the reagents, to organize the orders..." she says, bursting into tears when she recalls the tension of the last few months, when rumors about imminent layoffs were rife. "It's been a living hell."

She started out as an intern, making 750 euros a month, and now worked as a research assistant. "That's two categories lower than I am entitled to, but this sort of thing happens to lots of people who work around here," she says, calling the management team "a gang of cheapskates."

Llopis believes the center has been mismanaged by successive political appointees. "This [site] could have been incredible, we had the material, the equipment... but they never bothered with the research."

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