Red tape checks research surge

January 23, 1998

Italy's National Research Council is under attack for being top-heavy, wasteful, insufficiently productive and too centralised.

A radical reform of the council, which controls research centres throughout Italy, or its replacement with a number of smaller specialist institutes has been suggested but has met with resistance from some academics who defend the role of a multi-disciplinary national research institution.

Last year the Corte Dei Conti, Italy's supreme public spending watchdog, found that the council had wasted public money in unproductive initiatives and misdirected spending, especially on its own upkeep.

The Corte criticised the "substantially high" travel expenses of officials and itemised a long list of "wastages", pointing out that while total financing had increased by 15 per cent, the number of international patents obtained by the council had dropped by 17 per cent.

From 1991-1995 24 billion lire (Pounds 8.2 million) a year was spent on research, but 80 billion lire had gone on employee salaries and utilities.

The council is based in an imposing 1930s building next to Rome's La Sapienza University. Founded in 1923, the year after Mussolini came to power and before scientific research was brought completely under the control of the fascist government, its aim was to coordinate and fuel research so as to place Italy among the world's scientific "great powers".

It succeeded to some extent, for example, it was largely thanks to the council that Enrico Fermi had the means to undertake the research on nuclear energy that earned him the 1934 Nobel Prize for physics.

Since then, the council has remained the single most important Italian research institution and the prime source of employment for academics outside universities.

The main charge against it is that it is becoming a cumbersome bureaucratic monster more concerned with its own well-being than with leading Italian research and that it has become simply an extension of the almost feudal power of Italy's academic baroni who control the assignment of research funds and posts.

Physicist Daniele Amati, head of the Scuola Internazionale Superiore di Studi Avanzati in Trieste, where many of Italy's most dynamic physics researchers work, said that "the CNR itself is beyond reform".

"The entire national system of scientific research needs to be reformed. We need less bureaucracy and more decentralisation."

But Arturo Falaschi, one of Italy's most renowned geneticists, defended the CNR.

"They say an all-round CNR is anachronistic and that a British-style system of single-field institutions would be better. But in Germany the Max Planck institute embraces all areas of research, as do French research centres. Both paths are viable," he said.

Lucio Bianco, the council's president since 1997, refuses to countenance a break-up of the council.

He said that the Corte's harsh judgment covers 1991-1995 and that the Corte's report recognises that since then there have been improvements.

But Professor Bianco said that "it would be a mistake to break up the Centre for National Research" but wished it could "operate as a private institution, free from the shackles of public administration".

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