In Italy's election campaign, opposition parties have pledged research reform — but nothing will change until agency chiefs start playing by the rules.
If Dante were writing his Divine Comedy in today's Italy, he might still find cause to pen the line: “Laws do exist, but who is there to apply them?” But the inspiration this time would not be encounters in Purgatory with the rich and famous of medieval Italy. Instead, he might imagine meeting some of Italy's leading university professors and the presidents of its research agencies. These tortured souls would recall the many and detailed laws governing Italian academia, and their own failure to apply them.
For decades, Italy's scientists have worked under regimes that distribute money and academic positions without much fairness or transparency. Attempts to create a more equitable system have stumbled repeatedly. Just trying to survive in the system requires lots of energy that might otherwise be devoted to good science. Money has been in short supply for basic research in Italy for years, and fell after the election of Silvio Berlusconi's government in 2001. But even this cannot fully explain the feeling of stagnation in Italian research.
Rather, it is the failure to implement reforms that most depresses Italian science. For example, laws already exist that would permit researchers at the institutes of the CNR, Italy's main basic-research agency, to apply for promotion. The CNR, whose president is Fabio Pistella, is supposed to hold competitions for internal promotions every year or two. But the last one was completed seven years ago. The most recent competition was opened in 2004, yet the evaluation committee was appointed just a few weeks ago and scientists don't expect results any time soon.
There are laws allowing Italy's space agency, the ASI, to carry out space-science research, one of Italy's strengths — in fact, such research is a major part of the ASI's official mission, and the agency is relatively flush with money. Yet under the leadership of Sergio Vetrella, it has not started a new national research programme for nearly five years.
These two examples of playing safe by doing nothing are emblematic of a system in which no one has to bear personal responsibility and take the consequences.
This culture has to change. Romano Prodi, leader of the centre-left coalition that is ahead in the polls in the run up to the election on 9 April, has been listening to the woes of Italy's scientists (see page 264) and has promised to turn things around if he wins. His science advisers are aware of the problems and pledge that agency chiefs would be selected by Prodi from those competent and willing to make appropriate decisions, and that systems would be established at universities to render administrators accountable for their actions.
This could mean, for example, that when an academic appointment is made, the dean or rector involved would no longer be able to duck the blame if the professor proved to be an unproductive researcher. At the moment the buck can be passed widely, thanks to, among other things, the requirement in universities for secret faculty votes, or the fact that a candidate has been preselected by others onto the new national list of those deemed qualified to be a professor. The sort of independent evaluation that Prodi's advisers are advocating would attach consequences to bad decisions. Universities with poor research records would get less government money, and might hold their own rectors or deans accountable for the fact.
If such a system of personal responsibility sounds familiar, it is because it is already well established in most other scientifically advanced nations. But cultural change won't occur overnight in Italy. The structural adjustments that Prodi is being advised to make could nurture it, however. This would increase the chance of Dante encountering academic power-brokers not in the circles of Hell or the corridors of Purgatory, but in the meadows of Paradise.