A decline and fall in the future of Italian Astronomy?

Adopt an Italian Astronomer

Notes on Italian astronomical productivity

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On May 27th 2010, the Italian astronomical community learned that the National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) was going to be suppressed, and that its employees were going to be transferred to the National Research Council (CNR). It was not clear if this applied to all employees (i.e. also to researchers hired on short-term contracts), and how this was going to happen in practice. In this letter, we give a brief historical overview of INAF and present a short chronicle of the few eventful days that followed. Starting from this example, we then comment on the current situation and prospects of astronomical research in Italy.

1. What is INAF - a historical perspective
The National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) was created in 2001 from the merging of 12 Astronomical Observatories (which were previously independent entities, with their own administrations). INAF was conceived with the idea of having one Institute that would plan and coordinate all national astronomical research, as well as promote and manage the Italian participation into European and International projects. The first president of INAF was Prof. G. Setti.
In 2003, a decree authored by the Minister L. Moratti led to a profound transformation of INAF, with the inclusion of other seven Space and Astrophysics Science Institutes of the Italian National Council for Research (CNR)[1]. Minister L. Moratti also nominated Prof. Benvenuti as “Commissoner” of INAF. He was later appointed as INAF president and resigned at the beginning of 2007. A new officer, Prof. S. De Julio, acted as INAF “Special Commissoner” from May 2007 to February 2008, when the then Minister F. Mussi nominated the current president of INAF, Prof. T. Maccacaro.

The merging process between INAF and the seven CNR Institutes mentioned above was completed only in 2009, with the definition of the legal status of all INAF employees. In December of the same year, a new decree concerning a reform of all research institutes was published [2]. The aim was to guarantee a more productive and efficient use of public funds destined to research. Five experts were nominated (in April 2010) by the Ministery of Education and Research (Miur) to work together with the current Administration Council on the new reform of INAF. The entire astronomical community (including research astronomers working at Italian Universities) contributed with comments and practical suggestions on how to make the current organization more flexible and efficient.

In practice, since its very first foundation, INAF never reached a stable operational state and it is still waiting for a definitive internal regulamentation.

Currently, INAF comprises twenty research institutes, more than one thousand permanent employees, of which about 600 are researchers, and a bit less than 400 researchers working on short-term contracts.  About 500 researchers working at Italian Universities or other institutes are associated with INAF and collaborate actively with INAF staff members. All previous reforms, at alleged zero cost, but actually reducing the available resources, have caused a long period of adjustment, entrenched with organizational and economical difficulties. In 2009, INAF has received from the Miur a budget of about 91 millions EUR which, normalised to the number of employees, is one of the lowest among similar research institutes [3,4]. About 89 per cent of this budget goes into salaries and administrative expenses (This percentagekeeps rising due to the progrssive reduction of funds allocated by Miur to the Institute) [5]. A large part of the remaining 10 millions EUR go into the operation of the Telescopio Nazionale Galileo (TNG - in Canary Islands), the participation to the Large Binocular Telescope (LBT), and in the construction of the Sardinia Radio Telescope (SRT). All these enterprises started before INAF was estabilished. This leaves very little (approximately 1.5 millions in 2009 - the equivalent of one ERC grant for about 1500 people!) to fund scientific projects, to allow researchers to travel to disseminate their scientific results and/or working with collaborators, and to invite collaborators. It is worth noting that many of the projects in which INAF is involved have been significantly reduced already (e.g. TNG has been closed for a few months, and starting from 2010 INAF will not support supercomputing facilities). It is clear that there is very little money INAF can save.

Despite progressively reduced fundings and a tormented history, INAF has been (and remains, but see below) an institution of great relevance to Italian science and technology. It occupies a prominent position in research, both at national and international levels, and is involved in a number of outreach and didactic activities. According to the most recent evaluation of research activities in Italy, INAF is the first among the Italian research institutes in the field of physical sciences [6]. An analysis of the scientific productivity carried out by independent agencies (ISI Thompson) shows that Italy is fifth worlwide for activities in the field of astrophysics (10.3 per cent of the world productivity!). Out of the eighty-six Italian researchers who are among the most cited in the world, thirteen work in the field of astronomy, and are either working at or associated with INAF. These parameters have remained more or less constant in the past ten years, thanks to past investments and to the quality of Italian researchers who have partially offset the very low funding level by securing independent research grants and contracts (e.g. from the Italian Space Agency and also from the European Community). Despite the efforts of Italian researchers, a first negative signal concerning the scientific productivity was measured in 2008, and had been anticipated by many reports of external Visiting Committees to the INAF institutes [7]. E.g. from the Report on OATrieste: Vital scientific activities [. . . ] are literally being strangulated at AOTS by the current level of funding. The VC believes that AOTS is very likely to undergo a rapid decline of its current scientific and technological level, even of its capability to operate as an effective research institution in the next few years, if the funding situation is not improved. From the Report on IASF-MI and OA-Brera: Realizing that such an inappropriate allocation of funds to Institutes which undoubtedly score amongst the very top of Italian Astronomy is a consequence of an inadequate funding of INAF as a whole . . . .

2. May 27th 2010 - Italy turns off the stars
On May 27th 2010, the Italian astronomical community learns with great concern that the government plans to dismantle INAF and suddendly merge it into the CNR, as part of an economic measure made necessary by the recent financial crisis. The community fears that such a decision would have dramatic consequences on the Italian astronomical community, jeopardising the relevant contribution that INAF provides to major European and international projects (e.g. LBT, ALMA, SKA, ELT), and effectively destroying international agreements, with severe consequences for scientific, technological and industrial activities in Italy. INAF would loose its scientific independence to end up in a "cauldron" of large institutes. All this without leading to any appreciable money savings, and without any clear scientific and administrative plans on how this new merging should happen in practice.

As stated in an open letter by the Scientific Advisory Committee of INAF to the President of the Italian Republic Giorgio Napolitano the government decision sounds like a mockery, in addition to being a tragic mistake. Ironically, the very same decree discusses about favouring the reintegration of brillaint Italian brains working abroad. Why should these ‘brains’ come back to a country where there are no positive perspectives for their future?

The community is astonished, shocked by the news (most of Italian astronomers, - including the INAF president - learned this from the newspapers) that INAF is listed among several institutes considered useless[8,9]. An April Fools' Day prank? No, it is not.. Messages rapidly overflow all our mailboxes. Is Italy turning off the stars? Is the homeland of Galileo leaving his heirs orphans? What is going to happen to us? And to all young (and not-so-young anymore) people working on short-term contracts? And to our projects funded on European or International Grants? Several protests take place in Italy, not just from researchers working at INAF. Several other institutes have gone under the same hatchet.

3. May 31st 2010 - Decision postponed?
On May 31th 2010, the draft of the decree is read and signed vy President Giorgio Napolitano. The final version of the decree, that is currently waiting to be turned into “law”, does not include INAF among the institutes to be suppressed and/or incorporated in other institutes.

INAF is safe. For now. There is no reason to rejoice though.

It was clear from reading the preliminary draft of the decree already, that even if INAF was saved, life as a researcher would become more and more difficult. The cuts to the investment in research are cospicuous. Perspectives for new opening positions are very scarce: the current measure foresees a reduction of 80 per cent in the ‘turnover’, i.e. for every ten people retiring, only two new positions will be opened.

How is INAF going to survive if it is going to survive with a severely reduced budget? (At present, there are different interpretations of the economic measure, but they all agree that INAF, and not only INAF, will have negligible funding for research activities). All programmed cuts are likely going to bring to a very significant reduction of short-term contracts and trigger a new brain drain of young (and also not so young) researchers to foreign countries. At the same time, it will become more and more difficult to attract foreign researchers to our country. This implies that Italian astronomy will lose the most productive and competitive part of its researchers. Not the best way to save money, at least not on the long time-scale. The prediction is that of a rapid and irreversible decline of Italian astrophysical research.

The cuts are not just for INAF and astronomical research. They represent a constant of the part few years in Italy, and risk to strike the final blow to Italian public university teaching and research [10,11].

4. Adopt an Italian Astronomer
The rapidly worsening conditions and frightening perspectives have led us to the following (provocative) initiative: http://adoptitaastronom.altervista.org. At this webpage, you will be able to find a copy of this document, and all our CVs. This is what we do, this is who we are. One day (sooner than later?) you might well find all these CVs among the application material you will receive.
In the meantime, aware that our astronomical competences risk to be lost, we propose ourselves for a series of lectures/seminars at your Institutes, so as to plant a seed of knowledge that was born and grew up in our country. If you wish to give us your support by inviting us to your Institute, please send an e-mail to the address: adoptanitalianastronomer@gmail.com, and help us to circulate this letter within the astronomical community. We plan to make all seminars and lectures that will be given in the framework of this initiative publicly available.

5. Conclusions
These are very difficult times. 80 million citizens in Europe currently live below the relative poverty line according to EU statistics (10 per cent of the population in Italy) [12]. Explaining how this happened goes beyong the aims of this letter (and the competences of these authors). It is, however, opinion of these authors that the budget currently invested in science and research is not among the causes of the current situation, in Italy or anywhere else. Instead, it is our firm belief (which seems to be shared by most civilized countries: See e.g. http://ec.europa.eu/invest-in-research/index en.htm. The Lisbon Treaty, entered into force on 1 December 2009, states that The Union shall have the objective of strengthening its scientific and technological bases by achieving a European research area in which researchers, scientific knowledge and technology circulate freely, and encourage it to become more competitive, including in its industry, while promoting all the research activities deemed necessary by virtue of other Chapters of the Treaties. Italy has signed this Treaty) that investing in the future of education and research is a top priority, and that this becomes even more important in times of economic crisis. Research and education do have mid and long-term positive effects on the economical, technological and industrial situation. Curiosity-driven research has itself an important value, being probably the only real driver for significant and long term progress (also in economical terms: e.g. the web has been invented by particle physicists!). Cutting on education and research means cutting on the future. As scientists, before than as Italians, we cannot but express our dismay and  deep worry that the decisions currently being taken are inevitably leading to a futher cultural and economical impoverishment of our country.

The usefulness of basic, intermediate, and high education, as well as of research, is being questioned in Italy, mainly because they do not produce quick and easy money. We realize that, unfortunately, this approach and way of thinking is not limited to our country (although Italy probably represents a dire example of cultural decay). As scientists, we cannot turn aside from fighting this way of thinking, that we consider blind, foul, and irresponsible. It is not these principles that we want to hand on to future generations of astronomers, Italians, and citizens of this world.

6. Acknowledgments
We thank all our foreign collaborators, for having always trusted and appreciated the carefulness, dedication, and passion driving our research, as well as its social and economical value. We apologize to anyone who might not find that the scientific content of this paper is enough for it to appear on the arXiv.

7. References
[1] 138
[2] http://wwwrntta.mi.infn.it/Documenti/leggi-e-decreti/DecretoRiordinoEPR.pdf
[3] http://www.lascienzainrete.it/node/1489
[4] http://rasta.media.inaf.it/data/rasta-2010-06-22-49077.pdf
[5] files/pt-2009-2011.pdf
[6] http://vtr2006.cineca.it/php5/relazione civr/output/totale.pdf
[7] files/A4%20-%20testo%20copia.pdf
[9] http://beffatotale.blogspot.com/2010/05/enti-inutili.html
[10] http://www.repubblica.it/scuola/2010/06/24/news/presidente crui-5110009/?ref=HREC2-7
[11] http://www.nature.com/news/2010/300610/full/466016b.html
[12] http://www.2010againstpoverty.eu/about/?langid=en