Italian Government Seeks Massive Research Merger

ROME—A new plan to radically overhaul and streamline Italy's research system has been heavily criticized by many of the heads of the country's research institutes. The plan, put forward by research minister Francesco Profumo, would see all 12 institutes overseen by the research ministry incorporated into a single new entity, the National Research Centre (CNR). Critics say the reform is rushed and threatens the future of fields in which Italy currently excels.

The reform is contained within the budget bill for 2013 agreed upon by the caretaker government of Mario Monti on Tuesday night, and comes on top of proposed major budget cuts at Italy's government institutes, announced in July but not yet implemented. The new plan specifies that the National Institute of Nuclear Physics (INFN), the Italian Space Agency, the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology, and nine other institutes overseen by Profumo's ministry would be merged to form a single body with the same initials as that of the largest of the dozen, the National Research Council. A single president would replace the existing institute heads; he or she would work alongside a board of auditors and a single administrative council, the four members of which would be proposed by the research minister.

The reform would also see the creation of two additional bodies—one charged with financing research projects and monitoring their results, and the other concerned with technology transfer.

Profumo's plans, which must be discussed in parliament before becoming law, were attacked by research institute heads in a hastily arranged meeting with the minister yesterday. INFN President Fernando Ferroni, quoted by Il Manifesto, conceded that the current research system is "muddled, hyper-bureaucratic, and difficult to manage" but said that this "rapid reform" was not the way to go about changing it. Speaking of his own institute, he said that "it may have all the defects in the world, but I think it performs rather well in the international market and it has gained a certain reputation."

Writing on a blog on the Web site of Le Scienze, the Italian edition of Scientific American, particle physicist Roberto Battiston argues that the individual research institutes can only operate efficiently if they have "managerial and scientific autonomy" and that the far-larger CNR, in contrast, has developed a "complex bureaucratic apparatus." He says that the reform has been "absolutely not discussed with the scientific community" and maintains that "a provision as important as this must necessarily be contained in a specific law and cannot be masked inside a budget law."

Physicist and science-policy analyst Renzo Rubele of the Free University of Brussels estimates that the parliamentary discussion of the bill will take about 50 to 60 days, a time scale, he says, that could be shortened "if the government wants to appeal to special economic circumstances" such as market conditions.