Empty Pockets ... and Pie in the Sky?

Rome, early November. Young researchers take to the streets waving their passports. They are threatening to leave the country, to find jobs abroad. They represent some 1700 researchers who, in the past couple of years, have passed regular concorsi (a system of academic appointments based on national competitions) to obtain permanent positions in Italian universities, and who have yet to be paid a penny of their salaries. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's Government has frozen their positions indefinitely. The new financial plan, recently presented and to be approved before Christmas, ignores their plight--again.

Meanwhile, on a visit to Harvard the Italian government's chief accountant announces that it intends to spend ?100 million a year for the next 10 years on a research institute that still doesn't exist. The Italian Institute of Technology (IIT) will most likely be created in Genoa or Pisa.

The mismatch is clear. Intervention by the Head of State, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, sees the Government set out a decree providing an extra ?40 million to the universities in order to help the unfortunate researchers.

But, criticises Renzo Rubele, Ph.D. student and vice president of Eurodoc, it's a sticking plaster on a gaping wound, which does nothing to solve the long-term problem. "This is the third year of the wage freeze," he points out. What's more, "the decree covers the researchers who won their positions before 31 October 2003. For the next ones, the blockage will still exist."

Why, then, have universities continued to announce public competitions, despite the lack of money? In fact, they are treading on dubious legal ground, and many "frozen" scientists have appealed to the courts.

"But often the law is even slower than politics," points out Anatole Pierre Fuksas, one of the researchers, ironically. "The situation we are facing is very damaging for the entire Italian culture," he warns. "On the other hand, for the first time ever, we are finally visible to the media and this is a positive event."

It has to be said that the profile of the average young Italian researcher is not usually very attractive to the media: They are older than many of their European counterparts--on average being close to 40 years old--earn just ?1130 a month, and instead of concentrating on their research duties, face a constant struggle for survival.

And according to Gherardo Piacitelli, a researcher under a temporary contract and president of the Ph.D. student association ADI (Associazione dottorandi e dottori di ricerca italiani), the problem of these 1700 researchers is simply the tip of the iceberg. "Universities are ageing dramatically. By 2010, 80% of professors will have to retire," he highlights, and as things stand there is no guarantee that the younger generation will be available to replace them. "This gap will have extremely negative consequences on the country's technological and scientific development, and in this scenario temporary contracts represent a conjuring trick rather than a solution." Piacitelli would like to see the Italian research system shaken up so that researchers are considered as true professionals.

Instead researchers are an endangered species under the university reform started by the previous government. Only associate and full professors will hold permanent positions while temporary contracts will be given to researchers. The result, already visible, is an inverted pyramid, which counts in its structure more professors than young researchers. And at the same time the teaching burden has increased exponentially, so that researchers are forced to spend less and less time on research, and each supervise an average of 2 to 3 courses.

"The rectors did not take a clear position about us," concludes Piacitelli bitterly. But, responds Pietro Tosi, president of the university rector conference CRUI (Conferenza dei Rettori delle Università Italiane), "we do not have the power to do anything. Our message to the government is 'invest seriously in the universities and ask for results.' "

In this context, the announcement of IIT has divided researchers. The architects of the plan claim they need to break with the past by bypassing universities and research bodies altogether. Detractors warn against a serious waste of resources and describe the IIT proposal as obscure. Meanwhile the young researchers continue to wait for jam tomorrow, when what they need is bread today.

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