"Attacks against science and education are attacks against humanity"
Interview by Sergei B. Popov (Sternberg Astronomical Institute, Moscow) to Roberto Turolla (University of Padova) and Adamantia Paizis (INAF, Milano) for the russian scientific newspaper "Troitsk variant" (July 20th, 2010)
Attacks against science and education are attacks against humanity
July 20th, 2010
Problems regarding the organization and funding of science exist not only in Russia. In the last years similar problems have appeared also in Italy. After the financial crisis the situation got much worse. The astrophysicists Prof. Roberto Turolla (Dept. of Physics, University of Padova) and Dr. Adamantia Paizis (National Institute of Astronomy, INAF, Milano) are interviewed by Dr. Sergei B. Popov (Sternberg Astronomical Institute, Moscow).
On one hand, Italy is one of the most developed (in the sence of fundamental science) countries in the world. On the other hand, during last years the situation is changing, and italian universities (and fundamental research in general) seem to be under pressure.
How can you briefly characterize the situation before very recent changes?
Unfortunately public research in Italy was underfunded for quite a long time, a decade at the least. Italy's expenditures for research rank among the lowest in EU countries, not to mention the US or Japan. Moreover, a series of bills passed since 2004 made it increasingly difficult for universities to hire young researchers. In the last two/three years the retirement of a large number of senior professors (the large part of the Italian academic body was recruited at the beginning of the 80's) who can not be replaced added to this putting the system under unbearable stress, both concerning teaching and research.
Although blame for this situation is to the shared among all cabinets which alternated into office in the last ten years, the present government seems to prosecute a long term plan of systematic demolishment of the public educational and research system. Under the flimsy cover of "spending less, spending better", they bring a direct attack to the academic and cultural institutions, perceived as a pocket of political opposition.
What are the main changes now, in 2010?
The very recent Finance Bill, still under discussion, introduces dramatic, new sceanarios, not only for research but for the entire public educational system, part of which were already enforced by the Finance Bill of the past year. Just two examples. The foreseen cuts for public schools is estimated at 8 billion euros in 2010-2012, which means that over 40,000 teachers with a non-permanent position will be expelled, there will be larger classes, the teaching hours will be reduced (e.g. from 36 to 32 per week in technical high schools). The effects of this onto the competence of students entering university in a few years can be easily guessed.
The Bill contains a long list of scientific and cultural institutions which must disappear, and others for which funding is drastically reduced (up to 100%). Cuts are blind, with no real consideration of what each institution achieves. This implies that the turn-over is strongly reduced, forcing younger researchers to either give up science or leave the country, increasing the already huge Italian brain drain.
The universities are also threatened by a coming reform bill (the so-called "Gelmini" bill) which gives privates a preheminent role in their governance (with predictable outcomes for basic research) and confines young staff research associates in a limbo with no possibility of career advances, whatever their merits may be.
In particular, what is the situation with INAF?
The National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) was created in 2001 from the merging of 12 Astronomical Observatories. In 2003 Minister L. Moratti of the Berlusconi government incorporated into INAF seven Space and Astrophysics Science Institutes that were previously part of the National Council of Research (CNR). The model was that of Italian National Institute for Nuclear Physics (INFN), perhaps the most successful and efficient research institution in the country. In December 2009 a decree concerning a reform of all research Institutes was published to guarantee a more efficient use of fundings. Basically, since the very start, INAF has not yet reached a stable operational configuration and an effort for a definitive internal regulation is still on-going.
So with a great surprise did we come to know that with the recent Finance Bill, the same government that took out the astrophysical institutes from CNR to merge them in INAF in 2003 and published a reform decree for INAF in 2009, was now proposing to suppress INAF merging it back into CNR!
Fortunately this last turn-around has been put on hold. Nevertheless the major cuts and constraints in the last Finance Bill are still valid for the whole research , among which: heavily reduced turn-over for the next 5 years, cuts in the funds for temporary contracts, cuts in the funds available for missions (severely halting national and international collaborations) and freezing of salaries and carriers for at least the next 3 years. INAF counts more than a thousand permanent employees and about 400 temporary staff and according to the most recent evaluation of research activities (2006), it ranked first among the italian research institutes in the field of physical sciences, outranking even INFN.
The foreseen cuts will inevitably make INAF, as well as the other research institutions, less competitive and "older" (lack of turn-over, young scientists going abroad), with all the drawbacks that this will bring.
How the italian scientific community tries to influence the situation?
This is a key question and, unfortunately, perspectives are somber. In Italy, and to some extent also in other countries, the wayman is not very sensitive to issues concerning basic research. The more in difficult times like the present one, with a worsening economical situation. Especially in Italy, there are too many examples that ignorance is not an obstacle for making money if you know the right people. To make the public opinion not only aware but convinced that knowledge is at the basis of a civilized society is a difficult task, which politics is called to undertake. It is sad that in our country politics, or better politicians, became the main force against this.
Anyway, the Italian scientific community reacts in many ways, by organizing lectures in streets and squares, using the media whenever possible (letters to newspapers, interviews in Radio and TV programs, groups on Facebook), setting up web pages.
Often in Italy a strike is the way to express the discontent of the university community by government's decisions. Do you think it is a universal way to be used everywhere, or it is something specific for just several countries?
A nationwide, general, strike against the new Finance Bill just occured on June 25th. University research associates, without being on strike, refuse all teaching duties which are not strictly due according to present regulations for the coming academic year. This has a potentially devastating impact, to the point that in many universities the start of term next October will be impossible. Pisa and Pavia already announced that courses will not be guarateed. This spred worries among students and their families and letters to newspapers began to appear.
Strike in research, in the strict sense of the term, is maybe not the most efficient way of putting pressure on the public opinion and hence the government, in Italy and everywhere else. In general, strikes to be effective have to stop crucial services (like public transportations) and last long enough to produce serious effects. Meeting these conditions in universities or, even worst, in research institutes is quite impossible. Who cares if INAF researchers stop doing research ?
What is the initiative related to the web-site http://no-brain-no-gain.net/? Where the signatures will go? What government reaction do you expect?
The usage of the signatures will depend on the impact produced but for a start sending it to some major newspapers is foreseen.
The no-brain-no-gain initiative is one of the many that are being put into place. I do not expect one webpage to make the government understand the importance of science, since their intentions are clear. What I do believe though is that when many voices raise, at different levels and with different background, directions, languages, things can be influenced. If the people are convinced that education and research should be embraced, funded, empowered for the interest of the whole community, then no government would dare to destroy it the way it is being done now in Italy.
What is recently on-going (in parallel with blindly-addressed financial cuts) is a planned, national and repeatedly broadcasted hymn to superficiality, unpunished corruption, and quick-and-dirty success.We, italian people, are not like that. We deserve more, we want more. The current situation has to be overturned and the only way is that each one of us makes his/her own voice heard. Personally I did so with the web page, I know it is a drop in the sea, but the sea, after all, is made of drops.
Among the wonderful comments that I received via the web page, there is the one by Ivan from Argentina, that somehow says it all:
"Attacks against science and education are attacks against humanity."
What can be negative consequences of recent government decisions? In particular, do you expect a new wave of brain drain from Italy? Will it be more difficult to attract foreign scientists to Italy?
Consequences are extremely serious, and not only for research. Recently passed/proposed bills endanger freedom of expression, independence of judges, possibility to bring in court government members who committed felonies and whatever may help to create, spread, and defend public awareness.
Narrowing it down to science, brain drain is already ongoing. It is increasingly difficult to keep in Italy young, bright scientists for several reasons: very low salaries, little opportunities for career advance, and, above this all, a gloom canopy of not being considered a valuable resource for the country by our own politicians. Attracting foreigner scientists in Italy has never been easy. Salaries are on the lower end on western standards and, but this is partly our own responsability, permanent positions are assigned with an archaic system. Since a few years, calls are on a local basis, but they are not wordwide advertised and everything is in Italian!
Once the train of Research is lost, it is lost forever. It is painful to see this happen in a country that has offered so much in terms of research, ideas, creativity, innovation. We should inherit this tradition, we are throwing it away instead.
In you opinion, in the time of crisis what can be done by the government, if some budget reductions are inevitable, but they should not harm science and education?
Angela Merkel, the prime minister of a conservative coalition, publicly declared that the coming Finance Bill in Germany will save only two areas, healthcare and research. Even granting that Italy is not Germany and some cuts to research funding might be acceptable, one asks why the government decided to use the axe instead of the lancet, avoiding any discussion with the scientific boards. The answer seems to be even too clear. Among the new dispositions there is a generalized freezing of civil servants salaries, including research and university personell. This is going to affect most young research associates, who have net salaries around 1500 E/month. The economic loss over the entire working lifetime is estimated to exceed 100,000 E. One can not but wonder if this is fair, knowing that no tax rise was put into effect for the highest incomes, exceeding 100,000 E/yr. Capital gains in Italy are taxed at the ludicrous rate of 12.5%, one of the lowest in the EU. A serious plan of costs cutting in the public administration, with an eye to expenses for the functioning of politics, together with a modest, selective tax rise, especially on capital gains, would have avoided to reach what could indeed be a no-return point for Italian research.
P.S. See also http://arxiv.org/abs/1007.1455 (A decline and fall in the future of Italian Astronomy?) on the situation of italian astronomy.