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Drastic Cuts at Italian Institutes Infuriate Researchers

10 July 2012 12:20 pm
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R. Schifani

Targeted. INFN President Fernando Ferroni (left), shown here on a tour of the Gran Sasso lab with Senate President Renato Schifani (center), says the proposed cuts are "outrageous."

Italian scientists are up in arms over proposed budget cuts at over a dozen national research institutes as part of a spending review announced on 6 July that will strike €26 billion from the national government's budget. Among the hardest-hit is the flagship National Institute of Nuclear Physics (INFN), whose researchers made important contributions to last week's discovery of the Higgs boson.

"News about these cuts came out of the blue, and it's outrageous," says INFN President Fernando Ferroni, who would see his €278 million budget cut by 3.8% this year and by another 10% both in 2013 and 2014. "I believe that this ... is the best way to kill INFN," adds particle physicist Fabiola Gianotti, the spokesperson of ATLAS, one of two experiments that nailed the elusive particle at the Large Hadron Collider at the European particle physics laboratory, CERN.

The cuts would mean the end of the National Research Institute for Food and Nutrition (INRAN), as part of a reorganization of the Agency for Payments and Intervention in Agriculture. That means the country is losing "its only independent institute in the field of nutrition research, and a major Italian hub," says Giuditta Perozzi, an INRAN scientist who's helping set up an international petition. The institute's demise would greatly impair Italy's role within trans-national research programs, she says.

Other institutes facing cuts—although smaller than INFN—are the National Institute of Oceanography and Experimental Geophysics, the National Institute for Astrophysics, and the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology. Italy's National Research Council (CNR), a €1 billion funding agency, would see its budget decrease by 1.2% this year and 3.3% each of the next 2 years.

The cuts have to be approved by the Italian parliament within 60 days. So far, the government has not explained how it has picked its targets. Yesterday, Italian research minister Francesco Profumo, in Brussels to attend a meeting, gave a brief statement on the issue during a video briefing. "I hope we will be able to secure extra funds from other sources for the Italian research institutes," Profumo said. "However, there is a need to reorganize our models of research management in the country."

Ferroni, who took the reins at INFN last year, says he's "not against rationalization of expenditures per se," and says it may be possible to save money by regrouping INFN's 21 departments, which are spread around the country. But he says the proposed cuts are too deep and too fast. Smarter cuts would require at least the 4 years of his term as president, he says.

Like Perozzi, Ferroni and other institute heads worry that they may need to withdraw from international projects already in progress or to renege on long-term commitments, which they say would be an embarrassment for Italian science. Ambitious projects such as the construction of the €650 million SuperB electron-positron particle collider, already delayed, might face the ax.

"INFN has contributed to the formation of thousands of young people who are not only the future for physics, but also an amazing resource for our society," says Nadia Pastrone, head of the Italian part of CMS, the other Higgs-hunting experiment at CERN. Pastrone worries that Italian physics will suffer if it's unable to recruit new talent.

Giovanni Bignami, president of the National Institute for Astrophysics, says he's "bewildered" by the cuts, because the National Agency for the Evaluation of Universities and Research Institutes (ANVUR) started a review of all national research institutes less than a year ago; preliminary scores are expected at the end of the year. "We waited for ANVUR's establishment for years, and we are keen on being evaluated," says Bignami. "Now, do they want to throw everything ANVUR is doing out of the window?"

Heads of the affected institutes received no prior warning but are hoping to change Profumo's mind at a meeting scheduled for Thursday. "We shall do our best to convince our politicians that research is a key element for the economical growth of our country," says CNR President Luigi Nicolais.

Yesterday, Ferroni also wrote an impassioned letter to Italian President Giorgio Napolitano—who had personally acknowledged Italy's success in the Higgs saga—in which he called the cuts "devastating," and said that "if Italy wants to tackle the crisis with a long-term vision, science cannot be read solely as an>accounting notebook."

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