Italian scientists are worried that a shake-up of the nation's space agency will put commercial and defence interests ahead of research.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is in the process of replacing the president of the Italian Space Agency. He is removing the agency's current head, astrophysicist Giovanni Bignami, and installing business executive Enrico Saggese, who heads the space division at Finmeccanica, Italy's largest aerospace firm.

Giovanni Bignami is head of the Italian Space Agency. Credit: M. Lakshman/AP

The move has met with concern from the agency's independent scientific and technical council, most of whom signed a letter to the government last week asking it to reconsider. "We are worried that the scientific programme will be under-funded or cancelled in the next couple of years," says Guido Visconti, an atmospheric physicist at the University of L'Aquila and a member of the council.

The shake-up began in early July when six of seven members of the space agency's governing council resigned to allow the Berlusconi government "the greatest level of freedom" in determining the agency's future. Under its own rules, the mass resignation made the agency ungovernable and Italy's council of ministers is now seeking to install Saggese as a commissioner — an interim position that would give him complete control. A similar set of circumstances surrounded the resignation of the agency's previous president, aerospace engineer Sergio Vetrella, in 2006.

Berlusconi came to office in May, and the latest political manoeuvring is seen by some as an attempt to strengthen the space agency's ties with industry. Others think that the government may be moving the agency towards providing more military surveillance and other applications. The government did not respond to Nature's requests for comment, but has previously denied that it is planning such changes.

Bignami has only been the incumbent for a year, but has been credited with raising the profile of research, which takes up just 10–15% of the agency's roughly €700 million (US$1.1 billion) annual budget. Coming from a research position at the Institute for Advanced Study in Pavia, he is widely seen as more science-savvy than his predecessors. And he has given scientists more control of how research funds are spent by instituting a series of review panels. "We think he did a great job," says Pietro Ubertini, director of the Institute of Space Astrophysics and Cosmology in Rome. "He gave us full freedom to choose the scientific programme."

Bignami is also popular with Italy's foreign partners as, for example, he helped to coordinate data-sharing between international weather satellites. Italy will chair the next triennial European Space Agency ministerial meeting in November, and Bignami's replacement "could be very disruptive to overall planning", warns Bo Andersen, director general of the Norwegian Space Centre.

However, not everyone is concerned. "As far as science is concerned, I don't think it's a big issue," says Guido Chincarini, an astrophysicist at the University of Milan, who points out that the proposed deputy commissioner, Piero Benvenuti, is an astronomer at the University of Padova. He is also one of the resigning directors.

The government has less than a month to install Saggese, but for now, Bignami continues to run the agency. "No one has asked me to resign," he says. "And therefore I have not."