Italian coalition names science minister

Roboticist pledges support for research ‘based on excellence’
By Marta Paterlini
09-05-2013

Italy’s new coalition government has named robotics researcher Maria Carrozza as its minister for education, research and the universities. Prime minister Enrico Letta chose 47-year-old Carrozza, former rector and head of biorobotics at the Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies in Pisa, to fill the position, in a government that has emerged two months after elections produced deadlock between Italy’s political parties.

On her appointment on 27 April, Carrozza pledged to back basic research and stress the importance of peer review. “I aim to make the path of selection, funding and evaluation of research projects more streamlined and efficient, worthy of a European country, and to recruit and treat researchers in line with the European Charter for Researchers,” she told Research Europe.

However Carrozza—who resigned from Sant’Anna on her election as a representative of the centre-left Democratic Party in February—faces an uphill battle to shore up Italy’s university system in the face of declining education and research budgets.

“I am extremely sceptical about the political situation overall, because this coalition government did not have the consensus from the electorate, and this makes the whole scenario very uncertain,” says Francesco Sylos Labini, a physicist at the Enrico Fermi Center in Rome. Sylos Labini is co-founder of a grassroots group Roars, which has sought to mobilise Italy’s academics against research cuts.

Italian researchers say the situation in the country’s university system is becoming alarming. There is a large drop in student numbers, and many students from poor backgrounds have no means of support, despite their right to attend. There are also no funds to fill vacant positions as older academics retire, as envisaged under reforms implemented by the centre-right government of Silvio Berlusconi in 2010. The subsequent technocratic government of Mario Monti cut budgets for both teaching and research. “Let’s not forget that Carrozza supported that,” says Labini.

Indeed, even supporters fear that Carrozza is inheriting an empty-pocketed ministry. The amount of public money invested in the Italian research and university system has faced cuts since the 2010 reforms and during the austerity imposed by Monti.

Combined government funding for 12 major Italian research bodies will fall to €1.6 billion this year, from €1.75bn in 2010. One instrument for funding basic research, called Research Projects of National Interest (PRIN), plunged in value from €106 million to €38m last year.

“Money drops, and bureaucracy rises,” says Silvia Onesti, head of the Structural Biology Laboratory at the Elettra synchrotron facility in Trieste. “The only way to do research in Italy is to rely on private foundations and European grants.”

“Italian basic research is in jeopardy,” says Sylos Labini. Aside from lack of funds, critics say the Italian research system remains characterised by a lack of clear responsibility for how funds are spent. “Before injecting more money, they need to re-think the organisation, the assignment mechanisms, and the transparency of the system—and take merit into account,” says Tullio Pozzan, head of the department of medicine at the National Research Council, Italy’s largest research agency.

Questions have also been asked about the effectiveness of the national research evaluation agency (ANVUR), which released its first round of results last year. “After the evaluation there were no consequences. What is the point of ANVUR, if nothing changes after an excellent or an awful evaluation?” says Pozzan.

Researchers are hoping that Carrozza’s own research background will help the government to aggressively tackle some of these long-standing issues. Andrea Lenzi, president of the National University Council (CUN), which represents the universities, says: “Carrozza knows the national research and university system well—she has shared the difficulties of raising money, sponsoring students and organising courses.”

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