Turin Reformer Promises Shake-Up of Italy's National Research Council

The Italian National Research Council (CNR)—a €1 billion basic research agency with 100 institutes around the country—may be headed for some major changes. On 13 August, Italy's Minister of research and education, Mariastella Gelmini, appointed Francesco Profumo, the successful, reform-minded rector of the Polytechnic University of Turin as CNR's new president. Italian scientists say he is likely to modernize and revitalize the agency, which has been plagued by budget cuts and a culture that does not reward excellence.

Profumo is 58, about a decade younger than is usual for an appointment at this level. In Turin, the home of Fiat and Italy's "Motor City," he has worked hard to build international ties, turn scientific research into economic development and innovation, and set up tight collaborations with industry. During his tenure, the Polytechnic University zoomed past Milan's technical school as Italy's top school in the ranking of Il sole 24 Ore, a financial magazine.

Profumo says he'll try to apply some of the same recipes at CNR. He wants to make better use of CNR's patents, "turning them into businesses and boosting the development of this country." He says he also hopes to make Italy do better in the race for research money from the European Union. Currently, Italy contributes 14% of the E.U.'s research funds but it receives only 9% of the grants the union distributes. "Our country cannot afford that and CNR can help bridge this gap, intensifying its collaboration with researchers from other countries," Profumo says.

"Profumo has proved his exceptional skills in coordinating research, technology, and industry, and he will give CNR a central role in applied research," says Luigi Donato, founder and former head of the CNR Institute of Clinical Physiology in Pisa. "The latter aspect is crucial in this moment of financial crisis."

"He is an excellent choice," adds Tullio Pozzan, a pathology professor at the University of Padua who was in the race for the CNR presidency himself. But, he adds, "the task he has ahead is immense." In recent years, CNR's budget has been cut repeatedly, and current funding barely covers staff salaries.

Profumo's predecessor, Luciano Maiani, carried out a major evaluation of all of CNR's institutes, says Pozzan. "Unfortunately, as it often happens in Italy, there was no follow up." A reorganization based on the review's outcomes could be "a good starting point for the new president," he says.

*This item has been updated to reflect that Luigi Donato is the founder and former, not current, head of the CNR Institute of Clinical Physiology in Pisa.

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