Young Italian Scientists Take to the Streets

In most countries, Luca Leuzzi would be well on his way to tenure. After obtaining a Ph.D. in theoretical physics cum laude from the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, Leuzzi came back to his native Italy in 2002 for a 2-year postdoc at Statistical Mechanics and Complexity, a National Research Council center at the University of Rome, “La Sapienza.” Leuzzi, who is 36 years old, obtained a 5-year position there (akin to a tenure-track position elsewhere) in January 2005. He was confident that, in time, he would obtain tenure.

But Leuzzi’s career aspirations, along with those of many other researchers on short-term contracts in Italy, have collided with a series of new laws that will severely reduce national resources for universities and research centers, part of a larger plan to boost the country’s economy. Today, Leuzzi’s prospects are “quite unclear,” as he puts it. “The only thing I know is that either I’m in, or I have to leave.”  

Cuts in financial and human resources

Passed over the summer, Legge 133/08, the new Italian law, is set to drastically cut the financial and human resources for universities and public research agencies. In particular, Legge 133/08 will reduce the national budget for core expenses such as salaries, building maintenance, and research support in Italian universities by €63.5 million for 2009, a cut that will rise gradually to €455 million by 2013. Altogether, over the next 5 years, such cuts will add up to a loss of almost €1.5 billion in public funding for Italian universities. To get an idea of the scale of the cuts, consider that in 2011 that’s an estimated 12.7% reduction in the core budget the previous government had planned–and the previous government’s budget had already been revised downward to reflect the weakness of the economy. The only possible bright, yet controversial, spot in the new law is that it gives universities the right to become foundations so that they may raise private funds to offset the public losses.

The savings are mostly to be realized through a freeze in the hiring and promotion of permanent university staff over the next 3 years. Legge 133/08 requires public institutions to fill no more than two new positions in 2010 and 2011 for every 10 vacated by retirement the year before. In 2012, up to half of vacated positions may be filled. Legge 133/08 also requires public institutions to reduce their costs for nonmanagerial permanent staff–a category that includes researchers on the first rung of the academic career ladder and technicians–by at least 10%.

A generation at risk

Members of Italy’s university community view the new law as salt in the wound, an aggravation of a situation that was already grim. Italy’s research and development (R&D) spending is currently at 1.10% of its gross domestic product, well below the European Union average of 1.84%. “We all think that it is a real suicide for Italy to reduce further the research resources,” writes Pasquale Stano, a synthetic biologist working on a short-term contract at Roma Tre University, in an e-mail to Science Careers.

Young researchers on short-term contracts in particular view the law as the last–or at least the latest–blow to their professional ambitions at the hands of the Italian academic research system. Until the new law was passed, the high average age–52–of the 18,700 current associate professors in Italy and of the 19,600 full professors–59–was a source of hope for younger researchers who thought they might someday fill one of the slots their elders held. But “the consequence of this new cut of funds [is that] young people like me, or like Ph.D. students … do not have any future in research” in this country, Stano says.

The Rete Nazionale Ricercatori Precari (RNRP)–Italy’s National Network for Precarious Researchers–which was founded in 2003 to defend the interests of nonpermanent research staff in Italy, puts the number of short-term contract researchers working in the country at 50,000. So far this year, fewer than 300 ricercatori positions–the first rung on the Italian academic career ladder–have opened, according to Leuzzi, who has been involved in RNRP since its early days. According to figures from the Italian Ministry for Education, University, and Research, slightly more than 2000 short-term contract researchers are absorbed into the system in a typical year. (Today, Italy has about 23,600 such positions.)

Even as the number of short-term contract researchers moving into potentially permanent posts declines, Legge 133/08 is also likely to reduce the number of contract positions available in Italy. “The temporary research staff will be the first to be left behind, just not hired anymore” once their contracts run out, says Marcella Ravaglia, a 32-year-old postdoctoral computational chemist at the University of Ferrara who is also an RNRP member.

Waves of protest

Starting this past summer, groups within public universities and research institutions–including contract researchers–began holding educational events to alert their communities about the law’s implications. Many meetings and workshops have since taken place in which “we try to make new proposals to go into the opposite direction, to try to understand what the best thing to reform the university system” would be, Leuzzi says.

Right after the march, the protesters “decided to create a national network of Ph.D. students and untenured professors and untenured researchers,” Leuzzi says–a larger network that now, he hopes, will give them more clout. “We need a lot of power to be able to discuss on an almost fair level with the Berlusconi government,” he says.

A future on hold

On 10 November, the Italian government introduced a new decree with immediate effect–the DL 180–that amends certain aspects of the Legge 133/08 for 6 months, with the senate now pondering the passage of this new decree into a longer term law.

Under DL 180, public research agencies are for now exempt from the 10% cut in nonmanagerial staff mandated by Legge 133/08. The decree now also authorizes universities above a set financial threshold to use half of the funds made vacant by staff retirement for the creation of new positions.

More changes coming

Because of yet another law under consideration–the 2009 financial law–there are no guarantees even for scientists like Leuzzi who were in the process of being brought into permanent positions. The 2007 financial law (Legge 296/06) provided 3 years of national funding to stabilize 5-year ricercatori positions like his following a positive evaluation. The new financial law would now end this practice. “Either I become permanent before June 2009, or at the end of my contract–that is, December 2009–I have to look for something else,” Leuzzi says.

Finding an alternative position–even a temporary one–won’t be easy. “Certainly, I cannot find any kind of contract at the institution where I work,” Leuzzi says. That’s because Legge 133/08 forbids institutions from offering contract positions to those who don’t have permanent posts before the June deadline. Meanwhile, Leuzzi–like many other scientists–have passed over other opportunities.

Policy changes like these have both scientific and human consequences. “Since I … have a family and I have to pay a loan, … I need to maintain some income,” Leuzzi adds. “The easiest thing for me would be to go abroad at the moment and to go alone,” Leuzzi says. 

The situation for early-career Italian scientists has always been difficult. But recently, Leuzzi says, things have gotten dire. “There is no future” for young scientists in Italy, he says. “Either they just get rid of my generation and they start anew–but this would be a huge loss of expertise–or they invest a lot of money and make clear laws that stay the same for at least 10 years so that people can understand what is the right way to make a career.”

Science magazine reports on Italy’s academic hiring restrictions in its 3 October 2008 issue. (PDF, subscription required)

Photos, courtesy of the respective subjects.

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