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Italy's Geophysicists Finally Have a New Boss

29 March 2012 6:44 pm
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ROME—Several months of uncertainty regarding the leadership of Italy's National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology (INGV) have come to an end with the appointment of University of Catania geophysicist Stefano Gresta as the institute's new president. Gresta, chosen from a shortlist of five by research minister Francesco Profumo on Tuesday, replaces Domenico Giardini, who was appointed in August last year but decided to stand down after failing to secure a sufficiently high salary.

Europe's largest national geophysical research organization, INGV provides 24-hour seismic surveillance and real-time volcanic monitoring via data centers in Rome, Naples, and Catania, working with the country's Civil Protection Department to provide forecasting of natural disasters. The organization has recently been in the spotlight as a result of an ongoing trial in L'Aquila, in which seven scientists and engineers who served on Italy's "Great Risks Commission"—including longtime INGV President Enzo Boschi—face charges of manslaughter for allegedly downplaying the chances of a major earthquake before the lethal tremor that struck the city in April 2009.

Giardini, a seismologist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich, had announced his resignation in December, but it later looked as though he might stay on. In an INGV newsletter published in early March, Giardini explained that his resignation was due to his wanting to retain his post in Zurich. Professors at Italian universities who are appointed to lead research institutes usually continue to receive their academic salary in addition to their new wage, he wrote; but his ETH salary was reduced by 80% when he took the helm at INGV.

The INGV salary of about €115,000 just about covered pension contributions that he lost as a result of moving south, Giardini explained, which is why he sought ways to enhance his income. As ScienceInsider reported, Profumo tried to set up a special chair for Giardini at the Sapienza University in Rome before his resignation was due to come into effect at the end of February. But that plan was held up when La Sapienza faculty members insisted that he move full-time to Rome, Giardini says. In the end, time ran out.

Incoming president Gresta, 55, says that like everyone else at the institute, he was surprised by the resignation, because Giardini was very enthusiastic about his new job. The resignation and ensuing attempts to keep Giardini in his post have been a "very confusing business," he says.

Gresta says that the uncertainty generated by Giardini's resignation has affected INGV employees' morale; he points out that some workers have staged a sit-in at the Rome headquarters in protest over job security. Indeed, one of Gresta's immediate priorities is to ensure the continued employment of several hundred workers whose temporary contracts are to expire at the end of this year. "The main problem," he explains, "is not to find the funds as such, but to find the legal instruments to allow people to work. This is a bureaucratic issue and I am confident we will find a solution."

Regarding the trial in L'Aquila, Gresta argues that "everyone is good at saying what should have been done after the event." He says the scientific advice given by the commission members was "the best that the scientific community in Italy could have given in that moment" and believes that to say in hindsight that the commission should have acted differently is to make "a nonscientific observation."

Gresta himself served on the commission from 1994 to 1995 as a specialist in seismic risk. He was appointed again in December last year, when the commission was overhauled, this time to work in the section dealing with volcanic risk.

The president of the newly reconstituted Great Risks Commission is Luciano Maiani, a particle physicist who has previously served as director general of the CERN laboratory and president of Italy's National Research Council. Although Maiani has no expertise in geophysics, Gresta says he has no doubt that he'll do an excellent job. "Because the commission is organized into subcommissions, each of which has specialized experts, the president's role is coordination," Gresta says. "The fact that Maiani is a particle physicist may in fact be an advantage because his approach to problem solving allows him to find simple solutions."

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