Italian scientists are up in arms over government plans to drastically scale back a promised increase in science funding in 2002. More than 5000 researchers have signed a petition opposing the legislation, which would eliminate all but $200 million of a scheduled $900 million boost. The new budget "will simply ruin the possibilities of Italian scientists," argues Nobelist Rita Levi-Montalcini, former director of the Institute of Cell Biology in Rome.
Scientists had expected to receive $8.2 billion in 2002, up 12% over this year's spending. But that promise was made by prime minister Giuliano Amato, who was replaced in May by Silvio Berlusconi. The new administration has made science one of the biggest losers in a review of its predecessor's spending plans. The government puts a positive spin on the change: "There will be no cuts for universities and research" next year, notes Guido Possa, vice minister at the Ministry for Education, Universities, and Research.
Italy can ill afford the slashed budget, scientists say. The country's research spending stands at 1% of the Gross National Product, compared to the European average of 2.2%, according to a petition from the Italian Ph.D. Association protesting the 2002 budget. The group warns of a "lost generation" of young talent driven away by poor funding. The new budget numbers will also prevent the country's leading research institution, the National Research Center (CNR), from replacing researchers who retire from its staff, adds Renato Dulbecco, an Italian-born Nobel laureate at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California.
Funding isn't the only issue that has scientists upset. One member of Parliament, Marcello Pacini, has proposed privatizing the CNR, arguing that the private sector would do a better job of supporting research. But dismantling central planning, insists CNR president Lucio Bianco, would spark a crisis in Italian research.
Despite their protests, scientists aren't optimistic about their chances. Indeed, many regard the budget retrenchment as a fait accompli, predicting its passage later this month without significant changes. "It is difficult to think of hope," Dulbecco says.