Opening Gambit in Italy's Year of Reform

VENICE--Italy's chief research funding agency, the National Research Council (CNR), has a new head: informatics engineer Lucio Bianco, a relatively unknown academic. Bianco is expected to steer the council toward funding more applied research.

The appointment comes at a critical time for Italian research. Science Minister Luigi Berlinguer named Bianco just a few days after Parliament approved a law that gives Berlinguer more authority and requires his ministry to draw up within 1 year legislation to reform the scientific infrastructure. Berlinguer told ScienceNOW his first target for reform is the CNR, and that Bianco's appointment is part of his master plan.

Berlinguer says that he has radical plans for the CNR's 350 institutes. He says he wants the council to reduce its role in university-based research and concentrate on its own institutes, establishing a more coordinated network of centers and putting more emphasis on targeted projects. CNR has already been moving in this direction, but Berlinguer wants it to go further: "CNR should not be carrying out basic research," he says. In this context, he considers Bianco "perfect, since he has long experience in applied research." Bianco has worked for the CNR for 25 years and is currently director of the council's Institute of Systems Analysis and Informatics in Rome.

Most researchers agree that CNR is ripe for reform. The work of the council's scattered institutes is said to be poorly coordinated; its funding policies have been criticized for spreading funds too thinly; and the 15 national committees, each covering a field such as mathematics or chemistry, are seen as too isolated from each other. Still, scientists have mixed feelings about Berlinguer's plans. The director of one CNR physics institute in Rome is not so enthusiastic, saying that "CNR does a lot of good basic research." Although Berlinguer has only a year to work out his reforms--most likely against stiff opposition--he appears buoyant. "It is a very short time scale," he says, "[but] the point is, we have the power to do it."