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Triumph turns to tears as Italian physicists are given bleak budget news

Published on behalf of Nicola Nosengo.

“We had just finished celebrating, and we got our reward.” Voice heavy with irony, Fernando Ferroni, the president of Italy’s National Institute for Nuclear Physics (INFN), had just learned on 6 July that of all the Italian research institutes, his will bear the greatest burden from government cuts.

The news came just two days after researchers at CERN, Europe’s particle physics centre near Geneva, Switzerland, announced the discovery of the Higgs boson, in which the INFN had a key role. It contributed about 15% of the funding for CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC) and has hundreds of researchers in the ATLAS and Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) collaborations that made the discovery.

The cuts are part of the government’s desperate effort to reduce Italy’s huge debt by shrinking budgets in all sectors of public spending. The INFN budget will be cut by 3.8% this year — corresponding to a loss of about €9 million (US$11 million) — and 10% in 2013 and 2014 (a further reduction of about €24 million each year).

What is hardest to understand, say Ferroni and other Italian physicists, is why the cuts to the INFN budget are so disproportionate. The National Research Council, Italy’s largest research organization, will see cuts of 1.23% in 2012 and 3.28% thereafter; the Italian Space Agency will lose less than 1%. Ferroni, who has threatened to resign if the cuts are confirmed, has written a letter to the Italian president Giorgio Napolitano — who had warmly congratulated INFN physicists for their work on the Higgs hunt — asking for his intervention. In the letter, he notes that the cuts will not just affect basic research: Italian participation in the LHC has brought contracts for hundreds of thousands of Euros to Italian companies.

In a letter sent today to the ANSA news agency, CERN’s research director Sergio Bertolucci, ATLAS spokesperson Fabiola Gianotti and CMS honorary spokesperson Guido Tonelli (all Italian) say that these cuts would make it impossible for INFN to fulfill its international commitments, and would send a “devastating signal” to young Italian researchers, effectively inviting them to leave Italy. “The risk of irreversible damage is very high,” they wrote.

The Italian Research Minister Francesco Profumo has said that he hopes to recover some funds before the draft is turned into law, but has invited Ferroni to act “responsibly”. Profumo will meet representatives of all research organizations on 12 July to discuss possible adjustments to the budget plan.


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