Italian research is headed for major reform — yet again. But this time it's for real, insists Luciano Modica, undersecretary of state for research, and the main architect of a reforming law that the Italian parliament is expected to pass by the end of May.

“The difference between this law and other attempts at reform is the element of autonomy,” says Modica. For the first time, every research organization and institute will have full control over its budget, recruitment and how it runs its research. At the same time, the institutes will be accountable to the government for their decisions.

Universities were given autonomy in 1990, but without much accountability. Now there will be budgetary consequences for any university or research institute that makes bad decisions. The new law also creates an independent evaluation agency that will assess the quality of the research produced. And it gives the government power to withhold funds from institutes that do badly and to reward good performers with extra money.

“Not only money — also positions,” says Modica, who this week created 1,600 positions for entrance-level professorships over the next three years. These will be distributed to the universities ranked highest in Italy's first research assessment exercise, carried out in 2001–03. “The first ten universities in each field will get a certain number of these professorships, paid for by the government, and the others will get none,” Modica says.

The decree also dictates that presidents of research agencies can no longer be simply named by the government, but will be chosen from short lists drawn up by expert committees.

Among other things, this change is likely to lead to the ousting of Fabio Pistella, president of Italy's main research agency, the National Research Council. Constitutionally, such changes at the agency must be overseen by a temporary commissioner, not the incumbent president. A new president will then have to be appointed under the changed procedures once the commissioner's job is done. Pistella, who is not highly regarded, is unlikely to be on the post-reform short list.