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Italian Research Shakeup Pending

Credit: roevin

New Italian university and research minister Fabio Mussi's raft of reforms, which were approved in the 2007 finance bill and came into law on 1 January, give much-needed attention to the country's young researchers. Mussi set out to overhaul the Italian academic research system by bringing new blood into ageing universities, driving out nepotism, introducing a culture of assessment and responsibility, and raising funding for research. In another, parallel package--the pacchetto serietà--Mussi also tackled higher education, aiming to halt the proliferation of new universities and the delivery of "easy" degrees.

But although the 2007 finance law sets the stage for many of these reforms, many details--about the new procedures for appointment of researchers and how a new evaluation agency will be run, for example--require further legislation before they become real. Most of the missing legislation has been promised by the end of March, but as it goes through lengthy consultation with bodies such as the Conference of Italian University Rectors and the National University Council--then hiccups its way through the resignation, and then the reinstatement, of the Italian prime minister--the impact of the measures on job prospects for young scientists in Italy remains uncertain. Meanwhile, rather than settling for poor pay, an insecure future, and the vague hope of new positions and a career path based on merit, many continue seeking opportunities outside of Italy and even outside of research.

Italian researchers on the university scene

As in many other countries, the most immediate problem facing young scientists in Italy is how to get onto the first rung of the career ladder: a permanent research staff position in a university or research institute. The situation is particularly acute at universities, which employ an ocean of temporary scientists and an ageing academic research staff. The National Network of 'Precari' Researchers (RNRP) indicates that some 50,000 precarious (precari) researchers--postgraduates, Ph.D. students, postdocs, and lecturers--have been engaged for years on temporary contracts and grants with a monthly salary of between €800 and €1200. In many other countries, the majority of university staff members fall into the lower-age groups, following a pyramid shape, but Italy's approximate 60,000 permanent academic staff members are older and spread almost equally across the three levels of ricercatori (entry-level tenure-track research positions), associate professors, and full professors. Of the top rung--full professors--about a third are over 65.

The minister's aim is to create an employment structure in the universities with a much larger base of younger, early-career scientists, in line with those of other countries. Mussi's goal is to bring the number of scientists within the first academic level to 30,000 within a decade. The finance law provides for 2000 new posts to be created immediately after the reform of the concorso, Italy's appointment competition.

The current government remains committed to a radical overhaul of the ricercatore position initiated by the previous government in spite of widespread protests from worried scientists. Starting in 2013, the permanent ricercatore position, which for many became a final career appointment rather than a step onto the ladder as it was intended, will no longer exist. Instead, 3-year, once-renewable contract researcher posts will be available, after which young scientists will be able to apply for a permanent associate professor position. By getting rid of the ricercatori bottleneck, the government hopes to both open the way in to new blood and see the average age of the associate and full professors decrease in time.

Reforming the concorso

As for the concorso reforms, one of the chief problems these aim to tackle is a lack of rigorous and independent evaluation of applicants. "The system is self-referencing," complains Michele Cascella, an Italian research scientist now at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale in Lausanne, Switzerland. "Have you ever seen an Italian university advertise a position in a top international journal such as Science or Nature?" Successive governments have addressed the problem of responsibility and transparency in public research--but unsuccessfully. Last month, Mussi announced plans to set up a new national research and university assessment agency (ANVUR) to enforce better performance assessment in selecting scientific staff and to make recommendations to the ministry about the distribution of research funds, although how ANVUR will function is still being debated.

Brain pain

Meanwhile, some young scholars are getting impatient. Alessandro Schiesaro, a humanities-faculty professor at the University of Rome La Sapienza, says the country cannot wait long for cultural changes or for the new evaluation agency to influence the behaviour of individuals and institutions. The serious issues of low salaries and uncertainty in the concorso system, agrees Giovanni Cordini, president of the national university teaching staff association (CNU) and a public law professor at Pavia University, mean that Italy is "at risk of losing its best young people, who are attracted by professional, business, or other sectors where quality and skills are rewarded."

There is also the appeal of other countries. Italy's young scientists are leaving for institutions abroad at an estimated rate of 6000 per year. Schemes to stanch the flow and facilitate their return have been in place for years, but with little effect. One brain-gain mechanism was introduced in 2001 by a previous government, with a budget of €50 million that paid for about 500 contracts in universities and research institutes for up to 4 years and with a view to tenure. The scheme was scaled back when the previous government channelled funds into making these posts permanent--but very few tenured positions have been secured, mainly because the procedures for appointment were so vague and complex that there was no consensus on how to apply them.

In December, Mussi signed an act aimed at "facilitating" the call, but further legislation regulating the procedures is still needed. Meanwhile, physicist Antonio Vairo of Milan University, who has put together a string of prestigious fellowships, returned to Italy from Switzerland's CERN hoping to take up a permanent position in the Italian academic system. Four years later, Vairo is still temporary, and the scheme is no longer funding contracts or extensions. "The program is closed, time is passing, and researchers are leaving the country," Vairo says.

Giovanni Scotto

Ironically, the very problem Italy faces--an ageing science workforce--is itself a source of hope. Italy's ageing professors will be retiring over the next 4 or 5 years, says Giovanni Scotto, a social scientist at the University of Florence who returned to Italy after 11 years in Germany hoping to find "recognition for his professional achievements." Like Vairo, 4 years into the scheme Scotto can't see a permanent position in his immediate future. Scotto doubts that the system in place "will open itself to the most deserving youngsters," but he hopes that in 5 or 10 years' time there might be a "critical mass" of new university staff with the will to create a culture of meritocracy.

How useful is the doctorate?

When he took office, Mussi promised to raise the status of the doctorate--which was only introduced in Italy in 1980--and to ensure that it is valued in both the public and private sectors. A Ph.D. is still not required for an academic position in Italy, but in January, Mussi announced an imminent decree to give the doctorate proper credit during academic appointment competitions, in part to comply with the Bologna process.

Outside academia, employers often steer away from doctorate-holders, either out of confusion among titles or, as is common in Italy and elsewhere, says Michele Gianfelice, an untenured math researcher at the Polytechnic University of Turin and the RNRP university's contact, because an above-average education is often viewed by employers as a disadvantage, especially for older applicants. Mussi is considering offering tax incentives to encourage companies to hire Ph.D.-holders.

Spending and research culture

Another idea that Mussi is pursuing is the Fund for Investment in Research in Science and Technology, which he says will bring more cash into basic and industrial research. On top of the €200 million already available, Mussi promised about €300 million per year for 3 years, starting this year. A call will be opened to universities, institutes, and private-sector companies (with the condition that research results remain in the public domain). The government promises to finalize procedures by the end of March and have the money distributed by the end of 2007. But the concept of research investment itself needs to be revised, Mussi says. Italy lies in the bottom half of the European R&D spending tables, mainly because the private sector invests less in research than in many other countries. "Italy lacks a world of high-tech enterprises that put resources into technology, and hardly anyone is engaged in basic research," says Gianfelice.

Taking heart

Once the new legislation has come into force--hopefully in March--it could be months before the new competitions promised by Mussi open. A few current opportunities may help young Italian scientists hang on until then. In particular, the ministry for youth policy is offering a few grants under its Giovani idee cambiano l'Italia --"young ideas to change Italy" program--which closes on 15 March. With a budget of €2 million, groups of at least four people between 18 and 35 will be given up to €35,000 to develop creative projects in technological innovation and sustainable development, for example.

Young scientists may also take heart in the announcement made by the National Research Council in January that it would run competitions for 170 new research posts, give permanent positions to 150 researchers already within the council, and create another 140 posts in an agreement with the ministry to boost Italy's south. Finally, one of the measures that was passed as part of the 2007 finance law but awaits legislation for the details of its implementation may give particular hope to young scientists. For the first time, an initiative will allocate 5% of funds to medical research projects presented by scientists under 40. Project applications for funding by the health ministry will be assessed by committees whose members include research scientists below 40, half of whom will be from foreign institutions. "It's a first step," says Ignazio Marino, president of the senate's health commission.

Susan Biggin is a writer in Trieste, Italy.

Comments, suggestions? Please send your feedback to our editor.

DOI: 10.1126/science.caredit.a0700033

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