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Volume 16 | Issue 20 | 30 | Oct. 14, 2002

Scientists, Government Clash Over Reforms in Italy

Debate rages over potential abolishment of institutes | By Alexander Hellemans

Even before the Silvio Berlusconi government took over last year, major reforms of Italy's scientific infrastructure were under way. The National Science Council (CNR), Italy's largest scientific organization that employs about 3,650 researchers and 2,680 technicians, already had embarked on a reform program to bring it in line with the other research organizations in Europe, such as the National Scientific Research Center (CNRS) in France or the Max Planck Institutes in Germany. The CNR is currently regrouping its 300 institutes into 100 larger units.

In addition to the reorganization, another important change being implemented is the selection of new institute directors by scientific peers and on scientific merit. The CNR reforms have tried to rectify many problems of that organization, such as bureaucracy, political promotions not based on peer review or scientific merit, big differences in salary, status among CNR employees and university researchers working with the CNR, and the huge number of CNR institutes, making the organization unwieldy to manage.

Until recently it looked like the Berlusconi government and the Ministry of Education, Universities and Research, led by Letizia Moratti, would manage to get along with the scientific community. There were promises for increased funding of research, going beyond the 1% of BNP (half the European average), and the CNR reforms were progressing well. However, scientists remained worried about the low funding level of science and the idea of the present government to support salaries and overhead of only research institutions, while researchers would seek funds for research projects from industry.

However, a CNR reform plan leaked to a newspaper in early August destroyed this image. It revealed that Moratti and her ministry had prepared plans that are at a very advanced stage (a leaked "fourth draft" was distributed to the scientific community in early September) with the aim to eliminate peer review in the selection of institute directors. An even greater surprise was that the Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn in Naples and seven other publicly funded institutes (now independent from the CNR) would be merged with CNR departments. These institutes include the National Institute of Applied Optics in Florence and the National Institute for Oceanography and Geophysics in Trieste, with the researchers being reallocated to existing CNR institutes. Although Moratti's ministry claims that the leaked document is an early draft, it is detailed enough to worry the scientific community. According to ministry spokesperson Gino Banterla, a final draft will be made available to the scientific community and political entities soon.

THE FATE OF THE STAZIONE ZOOLOGICA "We absolutely had no idea," says Amedeo De Santis, a researcher at the Stazione Zoologica, who learned about the government's plans to suppress his institute from his morning paper. "No one knew about this possibility, not even the president or director of the institute," says researcher Antonio Miralto, former director of the Stazione Zoologica.

The surprise is great because the Stazione Zoologica is generally viewed as one of the flagship research institutes in Italy. "It is still one of the places where high-level science is done in Italy. ... Its closure would be a particularly strong blow to Italian scientific prestige," says biochemist Ernesto Carafoli at the University of Padua. The Stazione Zoologica has a prestigious past: Founded 130 years ago, it has hosted 18 Nobel laureates. And with 250 people, including staff, visiting scientists, and students, Stazione Zoologica is one of the largest marine research stations in the world. "It has served as a model for the creation of many research institutes throughout the world," says Miralto.

Life scientists quickly realized that the government's plans to merge the institute with the CNR would hurt marine biology research in Italy considerably. For William Speck, director of the Marine Biology Laboratory at Woods Hole, Mass., who says that he was "shocked" by the news, it is important that the research institute keeps its independence: "They are pretty much free to follow the science in the direction they think would be most productive, as opposed to being controlled by a governmental bureaucracy that tells them what they should and shouldn't do."

Lucio Cariello, the institute's director, says that "including the Zoological Station in a big or medium-sized department [of the CNR] would be a big disadvantage. We are a multidisciplinary institution with a tradition to study the whole range from molecules to the ecology of marine environments." And Marcello Buiatti, a geneticist at the University of Florence, argues that because "the 'new CNR' will be almost completely technology driven," basic research in marine biology will suffer. He points out that with the new government there is a semantic shift: "They call 'fundamental research' what we call 'oriented research,' and they call 'oriented research' what we call 'experimentation with existing innovation,'" says Buiatti.

Giorgio Bernardi, president of Stazione Zoologica, reports that he has sent a letter to Moratti, containing 63 signatures of internationally known scientists, including Nobelists Paul Berg of Stanford University and Renato Dulbecco of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, and three European Nobel laureates. "We have now received hundreds of letters from abroad--the rumor spread and many people wrote to us spontaneously--and we are sending the list to the ministry," says Bernardi, who adds that he is also contacting international organizations. Their main actions will concentrate on the government. "We are going to act at different levels to convince the government that it is a big mistake," says Bernardi, who expects that dealing with the government may take months. "Clearly there is a need for a discussion."

Bernardi reports that his nomination as president of the institute has been continued by the ministry, and that he will be able to meet with vice minister Guido Possa soon. "I'm a little bit hopeful that the ministry will revise its position," he says. Bernardi hopes that his institute will not be associated with the CNR when the new research plan becomes available.

On Sept. 10, at a large plenary meeting in Rome attended by 800 scientists, a group of concerned scientists from universities, the CNR, and several re-search institutes announced the creation of an "Observatory of the Sciences," which now has a core group of about 30 scientists in its steering committee. Says committee member Buiatti: "We are planning a future network of assemblies and discussions, will collect information, and will supply information to the people."

Alexander Hellemans is a freelance science writer in Napoli, Italy.

©2002, The Scientist Inc.
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