Published online 15 October 2008 | Nature 455, 840-841 (2008) | doi:10.1038/455840b

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New law threatens Italian research jobs

Scientists protest over government's cost cutting.

Nearly 2,000 Italian researchers will lose promised permanent positions under a law that is expected to come into force by the end of the year. They may have to leave public research altogether.

Last week, the chamber of deputies in Silvio Berlusconi's new centre-right government considered the bill, which is intended to reduce public spending by streamlining the civil service. Several researchers have put themselves up for sale on eBay, as part of a campaign that has also involved tens of thousands of protesters marching through the streets of Rome and other cities.

The proposed law explicitly reverses another law passed by the previous, centre-left government, whereby long-term temporary research employees could be taken on permanently if they were suitably qualified. As it also prevents scientists from being employed on sequential short-term contracts, those already selected for permanency who have had more than three years of contract in the past five years will now be let go.

Renato Brunetta has lambasted the civil service.Renato Brunetta has lambasted the civil service.A. CASASOLI/CONTRASTO/EYEVINE

Renato Brunetta, the minister for public administration and innovation who designed the new law, has enraged scientists further by referring to many civil servants as fannulloni, or 'idlers'.

Researchers in Italy are civil servants, and the number of positions available is determined by the central government rather than by individual research agencies. The past decade has seen almost no new recruitment, and the number of temporary research staff has consequently rocketed. There are at least 4,500 long-term temporary staff — known as precari, in reference to their precarious positions — who stumble from one short-term contract to another.

The scientists say that their protest is not directed against the conventional postdoc system, but against the unhealthy ratio of temporary to permanent staff. "We have pathological numbers because new long-term positions have been blocked," says Luciano Maiani, president of the CNR, Italy's national research council.

As a result of the protests, Brunetta says that researchers will be given until 1 July 2009 while he investigates their claims. But presidents of the various Italian research agencies believe that the only way out of the situation is for the agencies to have more autonomy from the civil service.

"The government should recognize the highly specific professionalism of the research personnel — it is not appropriate for them to fall under civil-service rules," says Enzo Boschi, president of Italy's National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology.

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Claudio Gatti is a particle physicist at the National Institute of Nuclear Physics in Frascati who stands to lose a promised permanent job under the proposed law. He says that "in the Italian research system there's no planning, no mobility, no future — but we are ready to fight for our rights with every legal means available to us".

Research and education minister Mariastella Gelmini has not commented publicly on the situation, and did not respond to requests from Nature for comments. 

See Editorial, page 835.

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