Rubbia breaks into the shop

September 26, 1997

AN ITALIAN Nobel prizewinner who worked at Harvard for 18 years has finally obtained a teaching post in Italy after many years during which he claims to have been left "out in the cold" by the hostile closed shop of Italian academe.

Carlo Rubbia, who won the 1984 Nobel prize for physics, for research on sub-atomic particles, told an Italian newspaper that "for years I felt isolated. Now, the isolation is finished. But it took three university ministers to put an end to that situation".

Professor Rubbia will now teach at Pavia University, noted for its physics department, "thanks to the efforts of the rector, Roberto Schmid, and of university minister Luigi Berlinguer".

In July Professor Berlinguer issued a decree permitting rectors to employ academics who have distinguished themselves abroad even if they have no standing or rank within the rigidly regulated domestic academic system, and without their having to compete for the post.

Professor Rubbia left Italy in the late 1960s after failing to get a job in Italy's state university system. Instead of struggling on as a subordinate to a senior academic in the hope of one day obtaining a post of his own - the most common path in Italy to academic employment - he accepted a job at Harvard, where he subsequently carried out much of the research that earned him the Nobel prize.

Since the mid-1980s he has worked at CERN in Geneva, but has always made it clear that he wanted to return to teaching and research in his own country.

Professor Rubbia was kept out in the cold partly by Italy's rigid university career system, which operates through competitive exams for posts. But reliable sources also cite an attitude of hostility and ostracism on the part of Italian academics resentful of anyone who has chosen to ignore the system of careers largely governed by patronage and By subservience to powerful academic baroni.

Professor Rubbia is not the first Italian Nobel winner to denounce forms of ostracism. In 1995 Rita Levi-Montalcini, 1986 Nobel prize- winner for medicine, told The THES: "After I won the prize and had decided to return to Italy I was loudly acclaimed as a great Italian scientist. But then I was given a tiny research department where I could not hire a single person."

More recently, Renato Dulbecco, the 1975 Nobel laureate for medicine who had spent most of his career in the United States before returning to Italy, announced that he was fed up and thinking of leaving Italy once more because of "the bureaucracy, lack of financial support and salaries that fail to arrive". He subsequently changed his mind following promises that he would get support for his research, but the matter is still not completely resolved.

Academic careers are governed by competitive exams for the available posts. The exams are run by commissions of senior academics, most of whom have their own pupils and proteges. Under the new legislation, rectors can directly call academics of renown, Italian or foreign, to work in their universities without having to take an exam.

The summons must be ratified by the university minister. This, coupled with the increasing autonomy of individual universities within the state system, and a number of new or planned measures to put universities in greater competition with each other, may gradually result in an end to the old system and deregulate the assignment of academic posts.

But Professor Rubbia points out other shortcomings in Italy's attitude to research. "There is a discrepancy between Italy's economic role as the sixth or seventh richest nation in the world and the fact that it only spends 1.2 per cent of its gross national product on research while France, the UK and Germany are spending twice as much."

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