An outsider was named president of one of Italy's largest and most strategically important research organizations yesterday. Carlo Doglioni, a geologist at the Sapienza University of Rome, takes over the reins at the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology (INGV), which has been at the center of several widely publicized affairs in recent years.
Doglioni, 59, an expert in plate tectonics, was selected by research and education minister Stefania Giannini from a short list of five, mainly internal, candidates. He says he hopes to restore INGV's focus to its two main functions—basic research and monitoring of natural hazards—following a tumultuous period in the institute's history. Outgoing President Stefano Gresta and other managers have been accused of nepotism, conflicts of interest, and misuse of funds, while two of the organization's scientists, including previous boss Enzo Boschi, were put on trial and convicted to 6 years in prison in 2012 for allegedly giving false reassurances ahead of the deadly earthquake that struck L'Aquila, Italy, in 2009. They were acquitted on appeal in 2014, a decision upheld by Italy's highest court last year.
Gresta was appointed in March 2012 following the resignation of fellow seismologist Domenico Giardini, who reportedly was unhappy with his salary of about €100,000 a year. Gresta's nomination generated controversy among INGV researchers after it emerged that the selection committee had described the geophysicist to then–research minister Francesco Profumo as having had an "average level" university career. Institute researchers became more disgruntled 3 months later following the appointment of a new director-general, Massimo Ghilardi, whom they derided for having a degree in physical education and sociology.
The pair has since been in the crosshairs of Il Foglietto della Ricerca, a publication of the Usi Ricerca research trade union, and a number of parliamentary enquiries. Among the issues under scrutiny was a consultancy of €130,000 awarded by Ghilardi to a company based in Brescia, in northern Italy, where he was previously a town councilor. (A political colleague of his had reportedly worked as a consultant for a former incarnation of the company for 11 years.) In addition, Gresta came under fire from a group of senators for alleged "anomalies and lack of transparency" when laying out criteria for filling 200 new permanent positions at the institute; the senators suspected that the criteria were deliberately set to allow specific individuals to be hired.
Doglioni says he is not very familiar with the duo's problems and doesn’t want to "express judgments." His external perspective could be a useful asset, he says, adding that he has "to have a period of time to know the institute." Among his plans for INGV are a new project to "study the structure and workings of the Earth" related to seismicity and volcanology, and the stimulation of research on the environment and new energy resources.
Doglioni has been critical of the scientists put on trial, however. In a 2010 lecture for a group of students that was recorded on video, he said that the scientists were "a bit superficial" in giving the advice they did. "There is lots of evidence that can help us say 'an earthquake is about to arrive,'" he said. Nevertheless, Doglioni says that the L'Aquila trial is now "a closed chapter" and that the only thing that interests him is "what to do in future." A number of colleagues are studying how the combination of changes in various parameters—relating to seismicity, geochemistry, and geodesy—can indicate which zones are likely to be more earthquake-prone in the future, he says.
Boschi says he was unhappy when he heard Doglioni's videotaped comments, and says "they make no sense scientifically," but he hopes that the new INGV president has "the technical and management capacity" to improve the institute's fortunes. "Serenity needs to be brought back," he says.
Francesco Mulargia, a seismologist at the University of Bologna who sits on INGV's scientific council, says Doglioni is "a well-known geologist," but he questions whether the new boss has the expertise to lead an institute that concentrates on two related but more quantitative fields—geophysics and volcanology. "If I went to have a heart operation I would be worried if a brain surgeon arrived, even the best in the world," he says.