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The ISS headquarters in Rome.

The ISS headquarters in Rome.

Ferdinando Chiodo/Wikimedia Commons

Italy's NIH gets new leadership to address fiscal crisis

The Italian government has chosen a prominent scientist to take charge of the country’s leading biomedical research institute with the goal of improving its precarious financial situation. But some researchers at the Istituto Superiore di Sanità (ISS) are worried that implementing the needed fiscal reforms will also result in curtailing programs and cutting staff.

Gualtiero Ricciardi, professor of hygiene and public health at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart, Rome, began his new job today as ISS commissioner. He replaces Fabrizio Oleari, who became ISS president last year amid controversy about his scientific qualifications for the job.

Last month, the Italian government declared that ISS was in receivership “because of the financial situation of deficit recorded in the financial statements for two consecutive years," and on Tuesday Health Minister Beatrice Lorenzin named Ricciardi for a 6-month stint as ISS commissioner. Ricciardi now heads the Department of Public Health in Rome and is completing a 4-year term as president of the European Public Health Association.

The government took action after the Court of Auditors found that ISS operated with a €30 million hole in its €300 million budget during 2011 and 2012. The problems developed under Enrico Garaci, who led the institute from 2001 to 2013.

ISS is the leading technical and scientific public body of the Italian National Health Service. ISS focuses on cancer, vaccines, infectious and rare diseases, and environmental and public health, employing 1500 scientists. Its president also led an expert panel that examined the controversial cell therapy proposed by Stamina Foundation.

“The scientific profile of Ricciardi is unquestionable,” comments Claudio Argentini, an ISS researcher and executive of a trade union for researchers, USB PI Ricerca. But Argentini worries that it may be “a pretext for the ministry” to carry out broader reforms, as have taken place in recent years at other Italian research institutions. Argentini notes that roughly 600 ISS researchers are employed on short-term contracts.

The Health Ministry has said that it expects Ricciardi not only to put ISS on a path to fiscal stability, but also to take the necessary steps to preserve its status as a world-class research facility. Paolo Del Giudice, an ISS physicist, hopes those changes don’t come at the expense of the institute’s independence.

“The mission of ISS, as the scientific body of the National Health Service, requires an appropriate level of autonomy,” says Giudice, a member of the institute’s scientific committee, which has been disbanded during the receivership. He says such autonomy also requires sustained public support to augment the funds that ISS scientists receive from competitive grants. The Italian government has cut funding for operating expenses by 13% in the past 5 years, he says, and “we expect the commissioner take action to reverse this trend.”

Ricciardi says that he is honored by the appointment and that his goal is to both “make ends meet” and to bring ISS in line with the ministry’s broader priorities for the National Health Service.