Italy Names New Research Minister: Francesco Profumo

Italy's new government has chosen Francesco Profumo, the relatively green chief of the national research agency, to be Minister for Education, Universities, and Research. Prime Minister Mario Monti made the announcement today, filling a key position in a government that some have called a collection of technocrats.

Just 3 months ago, Profumo, 58, was named president of the National Research Council (CNR), the nation's main science agency, which boasts a basic research budget of €1 billion. Profumo is also provost of the Polytechnic University of Turin, regarded as Italy's top university and a world leader in the fields of architecture and engineering. Profumo must resign the university post and is expected to step down soon from the CNR presidency as well.

The research community is welcoming the new chief. "He has a deep knowledge of university, research, and industry. I am sure he has the right skills to try, at least, to reform a system that is craving a fair evaluation and recruitment based on merit," comments Adriano De Maio, president of the European Centre for Nanomedicine in Milan. Adds Elena Cattaneo, director of the Center for Stem Cell Research at the University of Milan: "He has proven to be able to recognize, promote, and evaluate the quality of research."

Profumo has a reputation as an effective reformer, but the task ahead won't be easy. Apart from battling the endemic problem of patronage, he will discover that he is coming to an empty-pocketed ministry. Italy devotes a relatively low fraction gross domestic product to R&D (about 1.1%), and public support of science is unsteady. The main funding instrument, the so-called Italian Research Project of National Interest (PRIN), is plagued with hiccups: PRIN 2009 was announced only a few months ago, promising €106 million. Researchers are still waiting for the PRIN 2010 and PRIN 2011 announcements. Meanwhile, the government has been steadily trimming university budgets.

Anticipating turnover at CNR, the agency's board of directors this morning nominated a new vice president: Maria Cristina Messa, professor of radiology and radiotherapy at the University of Milano-Bicocca Medical School. The position has been empty since the change of government. As details of succession are being worked out, CNR issued a press release stating that Profumo is "honored" by the new assignment, which he will "embrace with humility and a spirit of service."