Abbott, Alison. "Italy Frees Research Council from ‘Baroni,'" Nature 394 (20 August 1998), p.
[MUNICH] The Italian council of ministers has approved sweeping reforms of the national
research council, the CNR, that will reduce its influence over government science policy but may
increase the efficiency of its research environment.
The ministers approved a decree introducing major changes to the law governing the CNR,
which operates a network of 300 government research institutes in most disciplines of science.
The changes are designed to curtail the pervasive influence over the CNR of an elite group of
powerful university professors in Italy, known as baroni).
Scientists have cautiously welcomed the reforms, operational details of which have yet to be
hammered out, but say that budget increases will be needed to allow the organization to fully
exploit its new potential.
The power of the CNR president has been reduced and CNR's 14 discipline-based committees,
which were heavily dominated by university professors, have been abolished. The committees
had distributed research funds, appointed institute directors and served a pivotal role in the Italian
government's formal scientific advisory system.
An executive board will be established consisting of the president of the CNR and six members,
only two of which will be selected by the CNR. The board will make final decisions about
institute directorships, which will have to be advertised openly.
A scientific committee, comprising half CNR and half external scientists, will advise the
executive board. It will authorize subcommittees to deal with research in specific disciplines, but
the structure is designed to limit the influence of entrenched members of these subcommittees.
Administration will be decentralized, such that staff at the CNR headquarters in Rome could
drop from more than 1,000 to under 300. The number of institutes and university-based CNR
research centres will be reduced from 320 to under 100 by consolidating smaller centres into
larger ones, but no loss of researchers is foreseen.
CNR will lose its grant agency role. Its small-grant fund, criticized for its ‘raindrop' distribution
(see Nature367, 398; 1994), will disappear, and its strategic research fund will be transferred to a
new ministry-based committee and opened up to scientists at universities and other research
Arturo Falaschi, a geneticist on leave from the CNR and currently director of the International
Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology in Trieste, says the new CNR framework law
"abolishes many of the faults of the past", particularly the way the CNR was used as a bargaining
tool in academic politics by the powerful committees.
Falaschi says the autonomy given to institutes by the decentralization of administration will make
the life of researchers simple' and more efficient. But true benefits will be reaped, he says, only if
the new scientific committees are populated by good scientists committed to modern research
and research management methods, including appropriate peer review.
Details of issues such as the recruitment of research staff and allocation of funds by peer review
are to be drawn up by the CNR. How these details are defined is fundamental to the future of the
CNR, says Falaschi.
Glauco TocchiniValentini, director of the CNR Institute for Cell Biology in Rome, says that if
the details are not defined optimally, and if the government is not willing to raise the budget,
which has stagnated for years through lack of political support, the CNR will be left very
vulnerable. "We urgently need new blood, because only 14 per cent of our researchers are under
40," he says.
"If the government wants the CNR to build itself into the sort of internationally competitive
organization it wants, it must provide adequate resources," Tocchini Valentini adds. Budget
decisions for 1999 will be announced in the autumn.
The changes are intended to be instituted within 180 days, but Luigi Donato, director of the CNR
Institute for Clinical Physiology in Pisa, thinks they are so extensive that two or three years could
be required and that transition rules will therefore be needed.
The decree was made possible through the so-called Bassanini law, which allows existing laws to
be modified without formal parliamentary approval to reduce the stalling powers of Italy's
bureaucracy. It has taken more than a year to win government support for the reforms (see
Nature388, 609; 1997) because of strong opposition from the large cross-party lobby of
politicians who are also university professors.