Italian scientists challenge cutbacks

December 28, 2009

by Guy Dinmore in Rome

Published: December 28 2009

Pierpaolo Giordano, tecnico oceanografo, Gruppo Emergenze in Mare; Massimiliano Bottaro, biologo marino, Gruppo Biodiversità Marina; Marco Matiddi, biologo marino, Gruppo Emergenze in Mare; Andeka de la Fuente Origlia, tecnico di laboratorio chimico

With soggy tents and a plastic Christmas tree perched on their research centre near Rome, Italian environmental scientists are entering their sixth week of a rooftop protest against sweeping job cuts imposed by Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right government.

Scientists and opposition politicians are concerned that the official “rationalisation” of the Institute for Environmental Protection and Research, known as Ispra, is part of broader government plans to undermine the independence of academia, facilitate big infrastructure projects and reduce transparency in awarding public tenders.

Separate from the controversy at Ispra, the government is restructuring its civil protection agency which deals with disasters and emergencies such as the Naples rubbish crisis.

A new corporate structure will make it less transparent, critics say. In its larger role, still headed by Guido Bertolaso, Mr Berlusconi’s right-hand man, the agency plans to take away seismic monitoring functions from INGV, the national geophysics institute. This would give it exclusive access to sensitive seismic information regarding such projects as new nuclear power stations .

The cuts at Ispra stem from government frustration at impediments to its industrial development programme, say critics. “This gives the government a free hand in speeding up their projects,” said Loredana De Petris, a former Green party senator.

After struggling under three-month renewable work contracts for years, some 200 workers at Ispra lost their jobs this year and about 230 more expect to from January. This accounts for about a third of Ispra’s workforce.
Massimiliano Bottaro, an expert in biodiversity and fisheries management, is one of 15 rooftop protesters, most of whom hold doctorates or are PhD candidates. Italy is cutting environmental research while other countries are increasing it, he said.”They are dismantling us,” said Mr Bottaro.

Italy languishes close to the bottom of the European league table in public expenditure on research and development.

Stefania Prestigiacomo, the environment minister who comes from a family of Sicilian industrialists, set up Ispra last year. It combined three environmental research and protection institutes – Apat for technical services; INFS, the national institute for wildlife; and Icram for marine science. Their independent boards were dissolved and Ispra was put under the management of a special commissioner who is a former deputy head of police.

Meanwhile the ministry has beefed up a separate body specialising in environmental services called Sogesid which it says “may be assigned contracts without submitting itself to a public tender procedure”.

Neither Ms Prestigiacomo nor the commissioner has visited the protesters. The minister has urged them to come off the roof and promised to ask the government to find a way not to lose such “a great asset”.
Additional reporting by Eleonora de Sabata

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