Italian Research Reform: Much Needed, or Missing the Mark?

Rumours have filled the air for weeks, and Italy's unhappy researchers face further months of upheaval and uncertainty following the announcement of new reforms to the country's public research bodies by Letizia Moratti, minister of education, university, and research, at the end of January. As well as the Italian National Research Council ( CNR), the National Institute for the Physics of Matter ( INFM), the National Institute for Astrophysics the ( INAF), the Italian Space Agency (the ASI), and a number of other smaller institutes are swept up in Moratti's reform proposal, which was quickly approved by the Cabinet. Shrinking bureaucracy and trimming the management are, Moratti claims, the aims, which would be achieved by drastically reducing the number of departments and grouping the current 100 institutes into seven macro areas.

Lack of consultation has really put the scientific community's noses out of joint. "It sounds crazy that research outsiders worked on this programme without referring to any kind of science advisory committee," comments Pier Paolo Di Fiore, director of the Italian Foundation for Cancer Research's spin-off institute, the Institute of Molecular Oncology ( Instituto FIRC di Oncologia Molecolare). Instead, the minister accepted consultancy firm Ernst & Young's recommendation that the CNR's president and board of directors should be directly appointed by the minister and that, in turn, department heads should allocate resources and nominate institute directors "in a vertical and hierarchical organisation," describes Rino Falcone. An artificial intelligence researcher at CNR, Falcone is one of the organisers of the biggest protest by the scientific community ever seen in Italy, a demonstration held in Rome on 12 February. "We feel outrageously offended and interpret Moratti's act as anticonstitutional, since it is against the autonomy of science," he summarises.

The reform needs the definitive approval of Parliament in the next 60 days. "In the meantime, we are available to discuss the details with scientists," rebuts Vice Minister Guido Possa. "We strongly believed that before facing the scientific community, we needed to have a real proposal lined up, where the intention to create internationally competitive centres of excellence was highlighted."

And not all scientists disapprove. Despite its distinguished history, and the excellent scientific results that continue to emanate from some of its laboratories, it is widely recognised that CNR is sick and in need of radical restructuring. Under the previous government, a sloppy reform in 2001 regrouped CNR's 300 institutes into its current 100. But the average age of researchers hovers around 50, the institutes lack fresh blood, and powerful trade unions exert too strong an influence. Moreover, patronage still outweighs professional competence in recruitment and promotion.

"The true problem is ... the lack of possibility to turn the education and experience you have received into practical results," says Giampietro Schiavo, group leader (principal investigator) at Cancer Research UK in London. "There is not the will to give space and independence at all." The mindset of the Italian science community needs to undergo profound change, say young, mobile Italian researchers, so that two simple principles--transparency and peer review--become the norm rather than the exception. "The total absence of research positions and of grants based exclusively on open competition and merit" is a real weakness, according to Stefano Rivella, a recently appointed assistant professor at Cornell University in the United States.

Recognition of such problems means that, in parallel with the rising protest, a pro-reform movement has been gathering strength, claiming that the reform proposal offers an opportunity to properly evaluate the situation of Italian science. Proponents of the minister's plan see it as a move in the direction of improving the efficiency of the Italian system while making the most of pan-European resources. "We have to collaborate with the minister in this delicate phase," says Enzo Boschi, director of the National Institute of Geology and Volcanology ( INVG) and leader of the pro-reform group.

Indeed, according to Vice Minister Possa, up for negotiation over the next 2 months is a guideline that could help introduce some badly needed new blood into CNR institutes. The proposal in question is that the CNR's president, heads of department, and institute directors should be able to select up to 6% of new appointees, from home or abroad, public or private sector, over the next 3 years on the basis of the excellence of their CVs. This would be done by bypassing the infamous concorsi--nation-wide exams that are often poorly advertised and controlled by powerful, centralised committees.

So will young Italians be jumping at the chance of a home-grown research position? Last year Schiavo turned down a Giovanni Armenise-Harvard Foundation award that would have allowed him to return to Italy. On the other hand, Livio Pellizzoni, who started up his own lab at CNR in Monterotondo 1 year ago thanks to the Telethon Career Program, decided to take the risk, despite knowing that the "intrinsic slowness of the whole system" would make life difficult. "I personally think that somehow coming back represents a real challenge, in the sense that working abroad can be an easy choice," he says. But at the same time Pellizzoni bemoans the fact that "Italy does not look for you. You have to create the conditions to come back, if you really want to." The nonprofit Telethon and Armenise organisations, which between them offer just a handful of awards per year, are currently the only real options available to young Italian brains looking to return from abroad.

Italian governments, of whatever political persuasion, have always "considered research the last wheel of the train," is how Alessandro Fatica, a researcher who recently returned to his original lab in Rome after a postdoc in Edinburgh, describes the problem. "Of course you can work in Italy. But what I am able to achieve in 1 year here, it would take me 10 years back home!" says Cristina Alberini, an assistant professor at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. After a productive postdoc in the laboratory of Nobel laureate Eric Kandel at Columbia University, Alberini made an unhappy attempt to return to Italy, where she briefly held a permanent position. "What would you expect from few resources, and badly distributed?" she asks.

Already facing a budget cut of 2.5% compared to 2002 figures, which will grow to a 10% cut in 2004, CNR has barely enough money to cover salaries and operating expenses. The resulting hiring freeze will affect the youngest researchers most severely, and yet Moratti's reform plan omits any mention of new money.

"Taking the American system as a model, we also wanted to strengthen the patenting aspect, currently a weak point in Italy," says Possa, indicating that the government's aim is to encourage applied research. But in the U.S., basic research is also valued and funded.

The message from young Italian researchers to their government is simple: Basic science represents an investment for the country, and without the proper financing, any attempt at real reform will be in vain. Sadly, with Italy's investment in research stuck at 0.9% of the gross national product, about half the European average, and the number of research jobs in Italy still shrinking, the prospect of the policy-makers hearing the voices of young researchers seems remote.

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