Italian scientists are exceptionally good at winning European Research Council (ERC) grants. That means a lot, since ERC Starting Grants and Advanced Grants are highly prestigious and unusually lucrative – they can bring up to €3.5 million to the host institute over five years, enough to establish a well-endowed research group.
Yet rules at home make it so complicated to operate the grants that a large proportion of Italian winners choose to bring them to a host institute in another European country – meaning that Italian institutions (such as the University of Padua, right) lose out.
Now 30 ERC grant holders working in Italy have written to their research minister, Mariastella Gelmini, asking that they be excluded from a number of restrictions introduced in a new law on universities which came into effect in January. The law was designed to regularise national academic hiring practices, but in practice sets conditions that are not internationally competitive.
They also ask to be independent of controversial 2008 rules restricting turnover of academic staff. The government hopes to save money by gradually reducing the total number of professors at Italian universities.
“The research ministry was not thinking about ERC grants when they wrote these rules,” says particle physicist Vincenzo Greco at the University of Catania, who won an ERC Starting Grant in 2009 and signed the letter. “It doesn’t make sense that all the rules should apply when money is brought in from outside – particularly when it is intended to bring a culture of excellence with it.”
The twists and turns of the new universities law mean that a grant holder wishing to spend part of the grant on hiring academic colleagues for his or her research group has two options, both unattractive.
One option is a one-size-fits-all contract for a maximum of four years which offers no pension. “This makes it hard to attract a person from abroad with the skills you might want; even if you find someone suitable in Italy, you feel guilty that you are depriving him or her of years of pension,” says ERC grant-holder Guildo Martinelli, director of SISSA (International School for Advanced Studies) in Trieste, who organised the petition to the ministry.
The second option – rather theoretical in practice – is a faculty position. Even though money for an ERC grant comes from outside Italy, the research ministry requires that an ERC associate professorship, for example, be considered as one of the fixed number of faculty positions available. The grant holder would firstly have to fight for one of the rare positions internally – and then take it through a national competition. Even if successful, those procedures could take a year or more, making it somewhat unrealistic in the context of a five-year grant, particularly since the outcome of a national competition may not be predictable. In any case, such a position would by definition carry a significant teaching load which a foreign researcher might find unattractive.
The letter asks the ministry to allow more flexibility in fixed-term contracts for researchers hired on external grants. It also says that a new position of research professor should be created which would allow academics to be hired fixed-term on a regular contract without teaching requirements. The current situation, where scientists designated as excellent by the ERC are unable to operate competitively in Italian universities, is “absurd”, it says.
The European Commission, which finances the independent ERC, said that it was aware of the problem and “it is up to the Italian ministry to respond to the researchers’ letter”.
But advanced ERC grant holder Massimo Inguscio, says the situation is “not so dramatic”. He signed the letter because there are “clear problems” he says, but he thinks they will be addressed. The new university law includes a clause which could allow special status for those holding European grants, he points out. “The ministry is already trying to make rules that will work for ERC grant holders.”