Leggi in italiano

The CNR office building in Rome. Credit: TK Kurikawa/ Shutterstock Images.

Maria Chiara Carrozza, a renowned engineer and former research minister, has become the 22nd president of the National Research Council, Italy’s main research body, with 88 institutes on all disciplines across the country, 8500 researchers and a € 900 million budget.

Carrozza’s appointment is the culmination of an unusually long process, that started at the end of 2019 and was delayed several times, first as the pandemic hit the country and then as a government crisis erupted in January. The void left CNR without strong management during the negotiations on the National recovery and resilience plan (PNRR), that includes about €14 billion research and development investments. Many in the CNR community are unhappy with the draft, and fear that the plan will end up diminishing the institute’s role. Mario Draghi, who in February replaced Giuseppe Conte as prime minister, will submit the final plan to the EU by the end of April.

The CNR president is chosen by the Minister of University and Research, from a shortlist selected by an independent committee. The four-year mandate of previous president, Massimo Inguscio, expired in February 2020. On 16 December 2019, then minister, Lorenzo Fioramonti launched a public call to look for Inguscio’s successor. But Fioramonti resigned two weeks later, and was replaced by Gaetano Manfredi.

A list of five candidates landed on Manfredi’s desk, but nothing happened. Italy was hit by the first coronavirus wave, and Inguscio’s term was extended several times until last February, when it became no longer legally possible. Vito Mocella, a CNR physicist and former member of CNR’s board of directors, claims that the stalemate meant that CNR was excluded from the response to the health emergency.

“We felt humiliated that we could not help,” says Roberto Defez, a researcher at the CNR Institute of Biosciences and Bioresources in Naples. “CNR could contribute thanks to its multi-disciplinary research and distribution across the country”. Gianluca De Bellis, director of the CNR Institute of Biomedical Technologies in Milan, also found the inaction inexplicable. “The reason is not clear. We needed a president for setting out strategies, to have a primary role in the outline of the PNRR” he says. Manfredi did not respond to Nature Italy’s requests for comments.

Things became more confusing when the Draghi government took office. Maria Cristina Messa, former rector of Università di Milano Bicocca, became research minister. Herself a vice-president of CNR from 2011 to 2015, Messa was on the original shortlist, and was seen by many as the frontrunner. Also, two out of five members of a new CNR board of directors – appointed by Manfredi in his last days as minister – had to resign immediately because they were assigned to other, incompatible positions (including Patrizio Bianchi who became education minister). By the end of February, CNR had no president and an incomplete board. Lucio D’Alessandro was appointed interim vice president until a solution could be found.

On 8 March Messa opened a new call based on new selections criteria. “The previous shortlist had been selected using criteria that had become obsolete” she wrote in an email to Nature Italy. “Different criteria had been used in the meantime for other institutions, with more emphasis on technical and managerial skills beside scientific ones, so I decided that it was better to start a new selection”. Another shortlist was selected and on 12 April, Messa announced her choice.

Maria Chiara Carrozza. Credit: Scuola Superiore Sant'Anna.

Carrozza, who is 55, is full professor of industrial bioengineering at Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna and an expert on the medical applications of robotics. She was Research Minister between 2013 and 2014, and a member of the Italian Parliament from 2013 to 2018. As the institution’s first woman leader, she says the role is an unprecedented challenge and responsibility, and represents “a change of pace and perspective”.

Plagued by budget cuts and often criticized for its bureaucratic structure, the CNR remains the largest and most important research institution in the country, but it is not mentioned anywhere in the current draft of the PNRR. The CNR community is especially concerned because the plan allocates €1.6 billion to seven new “centres of excellence”, on topics that overlap with existing CNR institutes. On 15 March, a group of CNR staff issued a statement saying that these new structures are “difficult to understand”, because their “goals and the necessary skills are already represented in the CNR as well as in universities and the rest of the public research system”.

In correspondence with Nature Italy, Messa wrote that the new president “will have the difficult task of making the CNR one of the driving forces of the PNRR”, where she sees the institute as being “central and transversal to almost all the measures”.

For Mocella, “Carrozza has the skills and experience to be an excellent president”. But he thinks the recent past has shown that CNR should be self-governed like universities or the National Institute for Nuclear Physics (INFN), where the community elects the president. “Self-governance would have spared us this awkward stalemate” he says. “I hope Carrozza herself has the will to reform the CNR, and that researchers will have a voice on the next president”.