The tunnel of Italian research

Read time: 7 mins

The recent call for applications for the next PRIN (and FIRB) Italian research programmes, whose expiration is forthcoming, encourages a ruefully ethnographic reflection. Let me explain.

Just imagine: a foreign colleague sends you the CV of a researcher who has been proposed for promotion for an evaluation. You go through it to get information about his/her age, his/her training, previous professional experience, scientific activities, extramural and teaching experience. You dwell on the list of publications, generally in well-known journals; here and there, through online repertories, you check an article whose topic is slightly off the typical competence area or one that intrigues you. Somewhere in the CV perhaps you may find that the candidate is married with one child and he likes sailing and playing chess.
Without distractions, it will take you between 30 and 60 minutes to get a picture of the person in question; in the next half an hour, you will jot down the letter you were asked to provide, with your recommendation targeted to the promotion that is up for grabs and the characteristics of the institution that is offering the position. If you were within range, you may even be asked the favour to meet 2 or 3 persons - out of the 10 or 20 candidates selected on the basis of the indications given by your and another couple of your colleagues around the world.
If you are part of a foreign commission that decides on the funding of research projects or that makes a selection for a prize or a prestige lecturer position, the process is essentially the same. After all, don't you remember the first, astonishing experience, being on the "other side" of the desk in a university exam? The student begins speaking and after a couple of minutes you know with unmistakable certainty which his/her final mark is going to be. Even more surprisingly, you find out that the grades given by the other examiners are most often within a 2/30th range from yours.

Now ask yourself on which grounds does this small, inexpensive "docimology" miracle rest: your conscience - whichever that may be -, the confidence placed in you, ergo your reputation, and the fact that the community in which you operate is equipped with self-correcting mechanisms. If you "recommended" a nag, it will be remembered somehow, somewhere. Like DNA, intellectual work - because this is what is all about - is perpetuated through continuous corrections and adjustments: imperfect as democracy, but apparently irreplaceable, as after all "Homo sum: humani nihil a me puto alienum."

In Italy the above does not apply, whether little or much, as we know painfully well. If you are just over a "public exam", you may remember being dragged along a sequence of exhausting bureaucratic steps (at least a couple of meetings, 4-5 reports), all recorded with paranoid accuracy (where, at what time, for how long), supervised by a public official and finally signed and initialled on each page (language, family, candidates' hobbies? Don't say a word please). You are like notaries in a proceedings, with a "stone guest" disturbingly looming over you: the Regional Administrative Court -TAR - a perfectly improper judge, and, later on, the Council of State, the last resort of depressed subjects. You are still the same, proud of the recommendation letter (without quotes) you wrote to your foreign colleague, but now under a cloud of suspicion and mortified, with no satisfaction if the candidate you knew was the best has been appointed, and resigned otherwise; in any case, reluctant to tell your foreign colleague that "this is how we do it here".

Here the ethnographic suspicion creeps in: when we are abroad, we Italians do just like the others, even better in many cases, hence, this schizophrenia is not genetic. But here we do not do it this way, we are in Italy: hence, it is ethnography, it is inherent to the history of a people and its institutions. Italian universities should not be evaluated by ANVUR, but rather studied by Levi-Strauss: it is strict anthropology rather than a legal matter.

The new PRIN's call for applications, however, which I do not quote here for the sake of your nerves and mine, suggests something new: schizophrenia is not only widespread in the academic environment and transmitted to the offspring by way of example, but it can also occur in single individuals as a somatic mutation.

If, due to an established tradition, the Minister of Education (or more simply of MIUR) is the most "foolish" (in Italian "Fesso", of course in its Latin meaning "fissus") of the aspiring politicians (Bono-Parrino, Zecchino, ... nomina sunt omina), no journalist or commentator or professor is surprised: since Francesco De Sanctis in 1861, it is an inclined plane with some occasional bumps, all the way down to Ms. Gelmini. Then, on the wake of the spread, here comes the Government of experienced and esteemed Professors. We learn that the Ministry of Education will be headed by the Rector of the Polytechnic of Turin, certainly one of the best schools in Italy, newly appointed at the top of the CNR. Now tell me, who hasn't felt his or her heart beating faster and a surge of hope? In the end (truly in the end) merit has the upper hand, "estamos mal pero vamos bien" (Carlos Menem, President of Argentina 1989-1999).

We therefore expected the new Minister to inject massive doses of common sense and bureaucratic simplification into the wrinkles of our system, for example by bringing ANVUR and other vague institutional structures back in reasonable proximity to envied foreign systems.

Instead, here is PRIN: a stodgy stuff halfway between an accountant and the Court of Auditors. Number of projects to be shortlisted "no more" than 0.75% of the number of teachers (conceptually and numerically equal to the new IMU [Single Municipal Tax] on second homes: the faculty as a land registry). An introductory orientation has been attempted through short meetings in the Rector's Office, excel spreadsheets with multiple columns, coefficients, derived indices, some expressed as a percentage, others in euro. You must be at least 5 in the team (how will the mathematicians do? A Riemann conjecture divided by 5? Parallel computing in Padua and Palermo?), woe betide those who venture to express a personal idea: this is strictly banned by Italian public funding. Projects are selected on two levels, at local University level and then at national level (14 Selection Committees [CdS] designated by a National Committee of Research Trustees [CNGR]): applications overlap (where do we find all these examiners given that if one accepts to be one then he or she cannot submit any project), expert exegetes are studying Article 5 of the call as if it were the Torah and confusion reigns. The first critical comments make their appearance in the newspapers: may be we should reconsider it, let's talk about it ...

The Minister responds by granting an interview, in which he says that the new system is like a "training" for the European projects (Horizon 2020 is a bit away in time as it will become active in 2014): as if to say that we need a few years in a training camp before the match, as until now we have mostly submitted ungrammatical nonsense to the Eu.

Who knows how it will end up. No matter what happens, we need an explanation, or at least a working hypothesis: well, the theory of somatic mutation gives us one. According to this theory, even intelligent, capable and experienced (in their specific field) people, when entrusted with managerial functions rapidly change phenotype and adopt that of stiffer ministerial old-hands, including all sophistry and mumbo-jumbo.
The mutagenic nature is indicated by the fact that little or nothing in the curriculum of these colleagues foreshadowed the change, if not, precisely, a random event. The mutation pathogenetic potential, on the other hand, is strongly suggested by "support" actions such as, for example, that of the new-zealots of bibliometric analysis with their rich list of academic cliques or that of CNR's leaders flattering their shadow president.

We had just escaped the neutrino tunnel of Ms. Gelmini and now we seem to be fired in yet another tunnel, from which we see a widening spread compared to reasonable research agencies (such as NIH or MRC), but little light of common sense. Now however, if you please, we have a scientific theory that helps us interpret these and similar events in the Italian way of life. And ask no further question.

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