Italian research faces a crisis

1 December 2008

Italian researchers at CERN show their solidarity with a banner that reads, "Italian research? Like this, it is without a future!" (courtesy of Marcella Bona)

CERN’s Italian contingent faces an uneasy time ahead, following radical changes in their government’s research policy. Budget cuts affecting education and research have led to large-scale protesting in Italy in recent weeks, and Italians across CERN have been uniting to express their concerns.

In August, strict new budget arrangements were approved by the Italian parliament, in an attempt to pull the country out of an economic crisis which has been slowly unfolding for almost 15 years. Mariastella Gelmini – Minister for Education, Universities and Research – introduced cuts and reforms last month, in order to bring her sector into line with the new budget constraints.

The cuts, to the tune of €7.8 billion, are effective across the whole education system. Details for the new laws affecting higher education institutes are still being ironed out, but the proposals include a €1.4 billion reduction, over five years, in the money available to universities. Without a sharp reduction in salaries, this will be felt most in research budgets. There will also be a turnover freeze at 20 per cent, meaning that five professors must retire before a new position may be opened, and the number and quality of courses that universities are able to offer will reduce drastically.

Many Italians at CERN are worried about the future of research in their country, as numbers of both temporary and permanent positions are due to be slashed. “Italian universities are wasting money. We can agree on that – money is not used in an efficient way,” says CMS collaborator and CERN Fellow, Marcella Bona. “We’re not against a reform … but this is cutting without distinguishing.”

Of particular concern to our Italian colleagues is that on June 30th, 2009, all temporary contracts with Italian universities will no longer be eligible for renewal. This news was a huge blow, in particular for those who obtained their contracts through the previous government’s “stabilisation” procedure – their contracts are due to end on June 30th, and they now have no hope of renewal.

Also represented at CERN are those who, in 2005, had been selected by the INFN (Italy’s National Institute of Nuclear Physics) to be given permanent positions as soon as resources became available. On the basis of these promises, many had begun to build lives for themselves – families, property – only to find that the new regulation, Law 133, dictates an immediate 10 per cent cut in permanent personnel. Unless their temporary positions can somehow be converted to permanent ones before their temporary contracts end in 2010 – nigh on impossible given the cut-backs – then they too are at high risk of being out of a job.

Thankfully, it now looks as though the INFN, and other public research institutes, may be granted exemption from Law 133. There will be no cutting of personnel, but the ceiling on the number of temporary contracts is still effective. Concern among CERN’s Italian contingent is still high. “If nothing changes in respect to these laws, I’m afraid that in the next years there will be a dramatic change in the presence of Italian scientists,” says Andrea Dotti, who works within the ATLAS calorimeter group.

In the short term, Italy risks “brain drain” as talented post-docs travel further afield – to the rest of Europe and the world – seeking out better research opportunities. There is already an overall intellectual migration happening as Italy fails to attract foreign researchers in their place. In the longer term, the situation may be exacerbated if high school pupils cease to see prospects for themselves in academic research and instead pursue alternative careers.

According to Marcella: “The level of the PhD examination has fallen since the educational reform of 2001. People are less prepared [as scientists]. We’re already seeing this, but it’s going to get worse.&rdquo

“The scientific and technical culture of our country will reduce dramatically,” adds Andrea, “so the impact on society will eventually come, because there will be no technical advances.”

Since becoming aware of the reforms last month, Italian researchers, professors, school children, university students, and teachers have taken to the streets together to stage demonstrations. “It’s more than 20 years since there has been such a big movement of students,” says Andrea, “but what is so incredible about this situation is that it’s not students against the system, it’s everybody – from the technical person in the school, to professors – all standing together.”

As a show of solidarity and support, Andrea, Marcella, and other Italian scientists at CERN have prepared a pack which they intend to send to Italian newspapers and the parliament. In it, they present facts and figures describing what the realities of the funding cuts will be; photographs of some of the Italians working at CERN and at Fermilab, illustrating the Italian presence at the forefront of international science; a petition signed by 212 Italian physicists; and a list of quotes from European heads of state on the importance of fundamental research (given at the end of this article).

“This is the key in my opinion,” says Marcella, “that we [quote] politicians, not scientists. These are politicians from the right wing too.”

The weight of public opinion is already beginning to have some effect in Italy. In the last week, it was announced that universities considered “good” will be granted exemption from the 20 per cent turnover freeze. A “good” university in this context is one that spends less than 90 per cent of its budget on salaries. These are few and far between.

“The motivation of the protest remains,” says Andrea. “Thanks to the extremely high mobilisation in the streets in the last days, the government has moved somewhat, so it really was an important demonstration. It’s not a victory… but at least discussion is starting to be possible. In the next days and weeks, the discussion will go on and we will get a better view of what is going to happen.”


You can keep up with this story in both Italian and English here:


Ceri Perkins

ATLAS e-News


Quotes from European Heads of State on the importance of fundamental research


Previous President of the Italian Republic, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi
on the Italian contribution to fundamental research, December 3, 2003

“Your research in particle physics and in the infinitesimal secrets of matter opens new horizons for humanity and paves the way for progress born from mankind’s thirst for knowledge – a way steeped in wisdom and respect for the individual. These places [particle physics research laboratories] gave birth to the Web, a worldwide forum of information exchange; and they gave birth to technologies of primary importance in the advancements in medical therapies and diagnostics, in material science and in energy.

Besides the lack of economical resources, European research is afflicted with strategical, structural and cultural failings: young people are less attracted by scientific studies; professors and researchers look for opportunities overseas. The European Union has to react. The EU has the instruments to do it and the duty to succeed in it.”


Prime Minister of the French Republic, Francois Fillon:
on the French contribution to fundamental research, October 21, 2008

“Together with the progress in the pure scientific knowledge, [the LHC] also gives us hope for concrete innovations. These innovations will strengthen us in facing the vital challenge of energy production, the fundamental challenge of food supply, and the challenges of low cost production of new, more reliable and more efficient materials.

Of course, the future is not written. All efforts in fundamental research, sooner or later, generate, through accidental breakthroughs, unforeseen discoveries in peripheral fields; discoveries that constitute real scientific revolutions and can change the course of our societies.”


President of the Swiss Confederation, Pascal Couchepin
on the Swiss contribution of fundamental research, October 21, 2008

“In this period of financial straits … in various countries, the real risk is reducing those investments that are absolutely essential in the long run. I am thinking about everything related to environment protection, to public health, but also to education and, to be more precise, everything included in the education budget, to what is not immediately useful at first sight, that is fundamental research. This would be a dramatic mistake.

Fundamental research is a little bit like the glaciers in the Alps. When they melt, we can take pictures and examine their retreat year by year, but this does not affect our everyday life. Then one day, the glaciers disappear and this changes brutally our everyday life because the rivers have also disappeared. Fundamental research is like the Alpine glaciers: if we overlook it for a short while, it can survive, but a long negligence leads to catastrophe.”