Courtesy of Paola Agazzi

Trooping through streets alongside empty hearses, Italian postdoctoral researchers mark what they consider the death of their role in the country's universities. Others cover themselves under sheets as a symbol of their ghostly presence in the country's higher education world. They are joined by associate and ordinary professors who display unmistakable protest signs: "Good-bye, Moratti."

Letizia Brichetto Arnaboldi Moratti, Italian Minister of Education, University and Scientific and Technological Research, is at the center of this unprecedented protest, which threatens to paralyze Italian universities, stirring up reactions among usually quiet, urbane Italian academics. Moratti's draft law, which was approved by the Council of Ministers on Jan. 16, and will be discussed by the Parliament in time for the new academic year that begins in the fall, aims to radically change the legal status of researchers and professors in an attempt to make the university system "more flexible."...



Courtesy of Paola Agazzi

Moratti's draft legislation does not seem to improve the situation, says Augusto Palombini, secretary of the PhD student association (Associazione Dottorandi e Dottori di Ricerca Italiani). By offering researchers short-term contracts and few prospects for future positions, the proposed law may only add to the problems prompting researchers to leave the country.

For years, low salaries, nepotism, a lack of meritocracy, and corrupt foundations have prompted researchers to look for countries where a better climate for science exists, says Palombini, editor of Brains on the Run. "In the next 10 years, there will be no 'brains on the run' anymore," Palombini predicts. "Universities will be thrown into mediocrity. They will become places for spare-time jobs."

For now, those who decided to remain are just "brains in the cage," the subjects of a forthcoming sequel showing the frustration of those who work in Italian universities, Palombini says. "[Postdoc] researchers earn little more than €1,000 per month," he adds. "Now, how can [the Council of Ministers] think that someone will continue serious studies with such low pay and with the uncertainty for the future on top?"

Italian universities, which make up the country's main publicly financed research network, receive 40% of research funding. The overall budget for those universities is $7,500 (US) per student, while the Euro-pean average is $9,700.

Despite the low per-student funding, the 2004 finance law has set aside more than €1 billion for a planned Italian Institute of Technology (IIT). The government has allocated for €50 million in 2004 and €100 million per year for the next decade. Conceived on the model of US university technology-transfer offices, the IIT would generate research that could be transferred to industry for the public benefit, according to the government's plan. The project, however, has been roundly criticized by scientists, who worry that the new center will be a waste of resources while many struggle for funding.

Even though expenditure in science and scientific research has seen an increase of about €1.6 to €1.7 billion in the 2004 budget law, which corresponds to a 0.1% increase of the gross domestic product, Italy is still behind EU standards. Overall, the country spends 0.6% of the GDP on research. The EU aims for all countries to spend 3% of GDP for research by 2010.

Despite the criticisms, Moratti, a former head of Italy's state broadcasting network (RAI), does not appear ready to relent in her reform plans. "We are willing to discuss with the scientific world ways to improve the text of the draft law," Moratti told reporters during a demonstration on Feb. 17. "But this reform is necessary."

By redesigning academia to be more flexible, Moratti says, it will be easier to eliminate some of the dark sides of the university system, such as nepotism and lack of meritocracy. The backdrop is a power struggle between the universities and the government. While the government wants the final say about the division of funds and personnel cost among the institutions, universities strive to keep their autonomy and decide how to spend their money and which research and teaching to promote. "In theory, I agree with the idea of flexibility. However, the job situation in Italy is very different from that one of the United States or other countries where a researcher with a good resume has plenty of opportunities," says Pierluigi Contucci, an associate professor at University of Bologna's department of mathematical physics who recently returned from a long stay at US universities. "In Italy, when you lose your job, you are put on the street, no matter how brilliant your curriculum vitae is."

Rossella Lorenzi is a freelance writer in Italy.

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