Italian scientists protest against budget cuts, crocodile tears included

In the successful Italian comedy, Smetto quando voglio (I can quit whenever I want), a group of young and talented scholars with no career perspective turns into a successful drug-dealing mob. The story is imaginary—a surreal rendition of Breaking Bad—but it is also the portrait of Italian academia. There, the shortage of funds, baronies, and scant meritocracy hamper the careers of many endowed scientists. This fiction is not that far from reality. Now, as an attempt to change their working conditions, Italian researchers are planning a protest movement in October, to take a stand against budget cuts and political apathy. There is no doubt that such movement is justified, but there is also a need for academics to run their universities better.

October protest

Compared with its GDP, Italy has the lowest public R&D investment of all EU15 Countries. The public expenditure for higher education is below the OECD average—in the EU, only Slovakia, Hungary and Greece are investing less, as per the 2013 OECD scoreboard. In addition, the budget for universities has decreased by 19% since 2008. The recruitment of new professors is virtually inexistent. And, in 2008, a controversial reform, dubbed the Gelmini law, failed to revitalise the university sector. To make things worse, a lingering economic recession brought unprecedented cuts to the government’s spending in R&D.

As a result, academics have now decided to fight back. On the 18th and 19th of October 2014, Italian researchers will join the protests of French and Spanish colleagues asking for more support to universities and basic science. While the French are planning to bike en masse towards Paris, Italians opted for a more traditional approach. At the time of writing, there were plans to organising a demonstration in Rome on the 18th October 2014. Many details have yet to be ironed out (See Note below).

But protestors are also planning to organising a series of gatherings of scientists at key academic centres to discuss the state of research in the country and the EU, using a slide presentation as a starting point—which will also be made available to all professors in Italy, invited to use it as the start of their classes. “The goal is to debunk many false myths surrounding Italian research,” says Francesco Sylos Labini, a physicist at the Italian Research Council (CNR) and the secretary of the association ROARS that promotes the initiative.

A larger ecosystem

 Some believe that part of the myths on research stem from the disconnect between the political class and the science community. “Many politicians are nurturing the belief that the Italian academia is not productive and it’s not worth investing more money,” Sylos Labini adds, “but data indicates otherwise.” Indeed, according to the EC 2011 competitiveness report, Italy ranks 4th in the EU for the number of highly cited research papers, after the UK, Germany, and France.

Crucially, for each Euro spent on research, Italian universities receive as many citations as their US counterparts, according to a 2011 study commissioned by the UK’s Department of Business, Innovation and Skills. For Sylos Labini, this shows that the “Italian academia is basically healthy and productive.” But he warns that the budget cuts are creating a point of non-return where productivity will inevitably decline. Similar complaints about funding have also been heard in Spain.

Although Italian laboratories measure well in terms of publication ranking, some believe, excellent publications scores are not enough to make a successful research system. Papers are important, but today they are not the only measure of scientific quality, according to the Italian neurobiologist Stefano Bertuzzi, who is executive director of the American Society for Cell Biology (ASCB), based in Bethesda, Maryland, USA. “I am the biggest advocate of basic research, and our policy at the ASCB is unambiguous about it,” comments Bertuzzi who is also a former policy expert at the US National Institutes of Health (NIH). “But we need to see fundamental studies as a part of a bigger ecosystem that includes clinical and translational research, patent protection, and venture capital among other things,” he notes.

Tackling basic research alone is not sufficient. “There is no silver bullet,” Bertuzzi adds, “Basic science is what keeps the ball rolling, but you can’t turn scientific papers into real applications without all the other catalysts.” He concludes: “unfortunately, I don’t see this view taking place in Italy.”

The villain in academia

 In addition to creating a suitable ecosystem, further changes need to happen before other problems plaguing Italian academia are resolved. One is the feudal system ruling across Italian universities, which has been encouraged by the behaviour of many professors. For decades, universities have recruited researchers with local competitions that were often rigged, favouring underhand deals among professors and nepotism instead of merit.

Meanwhile, the difficulties in pursuing independent research and a non-transparent recruitment are often named by expats as the major problems keeping them abroad. Italy appears to remain unattractive for independent scientists regardless of how much money is available. For example, in 2013, of all the Italians with an ERC consolidator grant , which supports independent research with up to €2 million, more than a half chose to work abroad. This compares with only a third of German and a tenth of UK grantees who left their countries.

 To keep or not to keep

The 2008 reform has introduced temporary positions and has put the recruitment in charge of a national research evaluation agency, ANVUR. But the murky criteria used for evaluation have been widely criticised.

In addition, the rigidity of the system, where professors can only be hired with a permanent contract, makes the turnover virtually inexistent. “The research system is stuck also because there is no turnover, “says Ilaria Capua, a virologist and one of the few scientists sitting in the Italian parliament. She adds: “Some universities are below reasonable standards but the state needs to finance them anyway, because professors are hired for life and cannot move elsewhere.”

As a result, young talents are not able to land an academic job. A mere 32.5% of Italian professors are younger than 45. And only one full professor out of ten is younger than 51. Many scientists, including Sylos Sabini, would like to see more researchers with a permanent job. “Stability is key to scientific productivity,” he says.

This is a double-edged sword, however, as permanent positions are what currently paralyse the system. Capua believes that a tenure-track-based career system, similar to what happens in the US and the UK, would give more opportunities to promising researchers. “But it’s very difficult to implement that in Italy,” she admits.

Science vs. shoemakers

 Another issue is the lack of political support for research. In 2010, Silvio Berlusconi infamously asked why the government should pay scientists “when Italy makes the best shoes in the world”. Although other leaders have offered less stupid arguments, science policy has never been high on the Italian political agenda.

Is anything changing with a new government in place since February 2014? Not much, says Capua. “The priority that research gets in the parliament is zero. I am vice-president of the cultural committee and yet I couldn’t have it examine one of my projects on independent research. I see proposals on many other things being prioritised over science,” she deplores.

The current Italian minister for education, university and research, Stefania Giannini, is busy with a painstaking school reform, at the moment. And she has not yet appointed an undersecretary with a clear mandate for research. “As far as I know, research is not in the government’s agenda,” says Capua, who was elected in 2013 with Mario Monti’s Scelta Civica party, the same to which minister Giannini belongs.

First things, first

In such gloomy political climate, demands to invest more money in science are justified and rightful. Yet, researchers have other urgent battles to fight. While pleading for more funds, they should, according to some, lobby for a better evaluation system. “It’s striking that in Italy there is no independent research agency to evaluate projects with a stringent peer-review system,” says Bertuzzi, “this should be seen as a top priority by everyone.”

The creation of such an agency alone —which has been the object of discussion for years, to no avail—would be a game-changer in Italy. Indeed, many funding proposals are still reviewed by commissions that include a few influential professors. And the heads of research agencies are appointed by the government. A more credible and transparent academia will give no excuses to lazy politicians.

Sergio Pistoi

Sergio is a freelance journalist based in Arezzo, Italy.

Editor’s note and update:

Since the time of writing this article, plans have changed. Due to logistical difficulties and other challenges associated with the organisation of  a protest in the streets of Rome, Italian activists from  the Per la scienza, per la cultura movement  are due to hold a briefing  for the members of the Culture Committees of the Italian Parliament and for some Members of the European Parliament, on 18th October.  This briefing is due to involve European research activists from other countries.

Go back to the Research Activism special issue.

Illustration credit: Ascent Film, Fandango/01 Distribution 2014

Sergio Pistoi

Sergio Pistoi

Visit his website at Greedy Brain
Sergio is an experienced science writer and book author with a PhD in molecular biology. He also teaches and investigates new models and strategies for science communication and outreach. His book “DNA Meets Facebook” won the Galileo Literary Award in 2013 in Italy. His credits include Scientific American, Reuters, the New Scientist, Nature and many Italian publications. He can still be found travelling on an unconventional DNA roadshow.
Sergio Pistoi

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4 thoughts on “Italian scientists protest against budget cuts, crocodile tears included”

  1. The fact that Italian research does not get adequate funding is undeniable, the numbers speak for themselves. However, it is also true that our universities suffer from other problems which are not strictly related to money. Choosing one viewpoint over the other one is just a matter of politics: left-wing and right-wing scientists often tend to underestimate the aspects that do not fit their political view. In my opinion, both aspects are equally important and should be addressed as soon as possible.

  2. It is just ridiculous that Mrs. Ilaria Capua, vice-president of the cultural committee of the Chamber of Deputes and member of the same political party (Scelta Civica) of the Minister of education and research (Mrs. Giannini) can simply say “The priority that research gets in the parliament is zero” and “As far as I know, research is not in the government’s agenda,” : if there are zero funds and zero attention to university and research its their responsibility (Minister and vice-president of the cultural committee). Mrs. Capua and Mrs. Giannini belong to the party that has voted the Gelmini Law (the majority of its exponents were in Parliament with other parties in the past and have supported the Gelmini Law) and to the party (Scelta Civica) that has being at the government in the last five years, i.e. of the politicians that have been active part in creating the actual disaster. Instead, from the interview it seems she is an outsider that is not able to do anything because of some unknown bad people. Just the other way around: they have done far than too much!

    Mrs. Capua says “The research system is stuck also because there is no turnover”: since the government of Mr. Monti (of the same party as Mrs.Capua) the recruitment has been cut by 90%. Again it is their responsibility that the research system is stuck.

    The journalist writes: “Italy appears to remain unattractive for independent scientists regardless of how much money is available.” The problem is just the opposite: people go away because there are no money! The rhetorics that the journalist uses (the problem is not money) was indeed used by Mr. Berlusconi governament and by the following Ministers of Education and Research to justify and to continue budget cutting. It would have been fair to show, for instance, what is the expenditure in higher education with respect to the GDP – one of the lowest in Europe

    Concerning the ERC grant: If you get an ERC grant what do you prefer? (I) Going into a country where there is a national research policy, where you have chance to make a fast and solid career and where you can set up a scientific team or (II) going into a country where there is not a national research policy, where there are no money for basic research, where part of your grant is used to pay the ordinary infrastructure, where your career is uncertain because of budget cuts and where the recruitment for your collaborators is about non existent?

    The journalist writes “Capua believes that a tenure-track-based career system, similar to what happens in the US and the UK, would give more opportunities to promising researchers. “But it’s very difficult to implement that in Italy,” she admits.” This is a wrong and misleading representation of the tenure track system proposed by Mrs. Capua herself which is not at all similar to what happens in US and UK (the “project on independent research” –- see ).

    It seems then that the the journalist does not even know the current recruitment system. The Gelmini law has introduced a tenure track based career system: indeed, that was one of its main “innovative” points. However the new tenure track figure (the so-called RTDb) was in practice not implemented by the universities for the lack of funds: this was the reason for the huge increase of non-permanent contracts and of the lack stable of career options for the younger generations. The National University Council (CUN) has written a well known report on this (see where it was noticed that the RTDb was a complete failure. It would have been fair to report this information.