Nominee to Italy's Top Biomedical Post Draws Fire

ROME— Italian scientists are protesting health minister Renato Balduzzi's choice to lead the country's top biomedical research agency. Last month, Balduzzi nominated physician Fabrizio Oleari, director of the ministry's prevention department, as the next president of the Istituto Superiore di Sanità (ISS) here. Some prominent researchers and legislators, however, contend that Oleari lacks the research pedigree traditionally required to guide ISS; they are campaigning vigorously against his elevation to the post. The final word now rests with Prime Minister Mario Monti, who must sign off on the appointment.

A research powerhouse specializing in cancer, vaccines, infectious and rare diseases, and environmental and public health, ISS employs 1500 scientists and operates on an annual budget of $240 million. The institute is no stranger to controversy. Outgoing president Enrico Garaci, who has served since 2001, has been attacked over his aversion to embryonic stem cell research and reluctance to fully embracing open, peer-reviewed research funding.

Oleari's selection follows a 6-month review during which an international committee shortlisted five candidates. The other four were:

  • Paolo Vineis, an environmental epidemiologist at Imperial College London
  • Giuseppe Ippolito, an epidemiologist at the National Institute for Infectious Disease Lazzaro Spallanzani in Rome
  • Ruggero De Maria, an oncologist at the Regina Elena National Cancer Institute in Rome
  • Stefano Vella, a clinical pharmacologist at ISS

The inclusion of Oleari, a respected bureaucrat with limited research experience, left some observers bewildered. "I have no idea how Dr. Oleari was placed in the shortlist over candidates with a much stronger scientific background," says former ISS head Giuseppe Benagiano, a reproductive endocrinologist. A law approved last June by Italy's parliament spelled out that ISS presidents must be "equipped with high and recognized professionalism documented through the presentation of curricula in research and experimentation in the fields of activities of the institute itself." Oleari's nomination, Benagiano argues, "is in clear contrast with the requirements spelled out in the law and with the specifications of the call for submitting candidacies." He adds that Oleari's publication record is sparse compared to those of the other candidates.

Some experts say that Oleari's appointment stands up well to scrutiny. Another major criterion for assessing ISS director candidates is their vision for the institute's future, which Oleari articulated well, says Bruno Dallapiccola, scientific director of the Bambin Gesù Hospital here, a member of the evaluation committee. "It is not necessary that the nominee would be a top scientist. What counts is that such a person is able to coordinate research that other people do, besides being an expert manager in public health," Dallapiccola says. He notes that Oleari has significant expertise in health prevention, a key ISS function.

Oleari's critics aren't ready to let the matter rest. One high-profile opponent is Senator Ignazio Marino, who tells ScienceInsider that he doesn't see the point of having conducted an international search for the next ISS director if the outcome is a nominee with the weakest research background. "The difference between Oleari and the other four candidates," Marino says, "is the same that occurs between a tennis amateur and four Wimbledon players." Oleari declined to comment; Balduzzi did not return calls from ScienceInsider. Monti's decision is expected imminently.

The conflict in part reflects the fact that Italy lacks a meritocratic tradition in making scientific appointments, says Ilaria Capua, director of the Department of Comparative Biomedical Sciences at the Istituto Zooprofilattico Sperimentale delle Venezie. But Capua, who intends to stand in parliamentary elections later this month as a member of Monti's Civic Choice party, says that critics have been too quick to judge Oleari. "The heads of the main international research bodies are expert scientists," she says. "Not necessarily top-level scientists."