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Italy Research Institutes Saved by Presidential Pardon

2 June 2010 3:58 pm
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Some of Italy's most historic and prominent research institutions were thrown into chaos last week as proposed budget measures designed to urgently address the nation's financial stability contained a decree labeling them as "useless." That designation would have targeted them for closure or takeover by the Italian National Research Council or other ministries. After protests by scientists and the intervention of Italian President Giorgio Napolitano, however, none appeared on a "black list" posted today on the government's Web site. Italian scientists, however, remain concerned that the government will instead gradually cut the national money allocated to the independent research centers. "We still are in danger and will know in the next months what will be our destiny," says one.

The furor started last week when the government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi unveiled an austerity package intended to save €24 billions and stabilize the nation's debt-ridden finances. In the package was a decree targeting more than 200 educational, cultural, and researcher institutions, including the marine lab Stazione Zoologica Anton Dohrn (SZN) in Naples, the National Institute of Oceanography and Experimental Geophysics in Trieste, and the National Institute for Advanced Mathematics in Rome.

The plight of SZN has caused particular consternation, with an online petition gathering more than 4000 signatures. Founded by Anton Dohrn in 1872 and regarded as the first marine research station, SZN was not connected with an academic institution like most subsequent marine biology labs. Instead, it offered facilities to scientists around the world who wanted to use marine organisms in their studies, an approach that inspired similar research centers elsewhere. In the 1980s, it became an Italian national institute but has largely maintained its independence. Just recently, it was picked to coordinate a new pan-European effort to make marine organisms and genomic resources related to them more widely available. "There is no doubt that SZN is one of few leading institutions worldwide in various branches of marine ecology and genomics," says Victor Smetacek of the Alfred Wagner Institute for Polar and Marine Research in Germany, who once served on the scientific board of SZN. "Politicians cannot see its 'usefulness,' and so along with some other institutes, [it] was lined up to be 'suppressed.' "

In 2009, the SZN went through an external peer-review evaluation that reported favorably on its recent activity. "The research being done at the Naples station is of very high quality and published in very good peer-reviewed journals." says Rita Colwell of the University of Maryland, College Park, a member of the evaluation committee and a former director of the U.S. National Science Foundation.

The decree issued last week was supposed to take effect immediately, followed by approval by the Italian Parliament within 60 days. But Napolitano, who visited SZN several months ago, reportedly would not agree to the decree's list of institutions when he signed the bill. (Although Italy's complicated political system provides more power to the prime minister position, the presidency can still exert considerable influence.) Today, SZN President Roberto Di Lauro circulated an e-mail, saying "I am happy to announce that the risk of disappearance of the Stazione Zoologica as an independent research institution is behind our back. I would also like to express our infinite gratitude to the President of the ItalianRepublic, Mr. Giorgio Napolitano, for his sensitivity and awareness towards Italian culture and research. His intervention has been instrumental for the cancellation of the measure aimed at cancelling the Stazione Zoologica and other research institutes."

But Italian scientists are still anxious. While these research institutes do get funding from regional authorities, companies, and the European Union, the national government provides a large share of their budgets. Ferdinando Boero of the University of Salento sits on SZN's scientific board and captured the concern vividly. "Chances are good that the budget will be severely cut. This might be another way to close it (instead of cutting the head of the victim, the victim is suffocated)," he e-mailed ScienceInsider.

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