INAF disaster

Scary breaking news : it seems the Italian Government are seriously considering closing INAF, the National Institute for Astrophysics.Warning : the material below is a mixture of fact, rumour, and speculation, so treat with caution until more facts emerge.

In the wake of the Greek situation, budget cut fever is sweeping Europe, including Italy as well as Britain of course. Berlusconi has announced a 24bn euro programme of austerity measures. As well freezing the salaries of civil servants, teachers and professors for four years, they are seriously considering closing INAF. The rumour I hear is that tenured staff will move to CNR (the National Research Council), with non-tenured staff being “sent home”.  Worried speculation is that Italian astronomy spending may be cut by 50% overall, and Italy may even leave ESO.

The INAF web site has a link to a letter from the Director, Tommaso Macccaro, to the Italian President. Those of you who speak Italian may be able to figure out a bit more.

This decision apparently happened overnight, without warning, and so has Italian astronomers in a state of shock. But I hear that the hit list of institutions has been changing daily, so who knows what may happen, and there may be cause for hope.

Appropriate addresses for letters of support etc :

Minister Maristella Gelmini
e-mail urp@istruzione.it,
FAX no. +39-06-58492057,

INAF Chair Tommaso Maccacaro
email tommaso.maccacaro@inaf.it

Giorgio Napolitano, Italian Republic, The  President,
FAX no. +39-06-46993125

The President, as opposed to Berlusconi, is believed to be a friend of Universities and Research and trying to protect them.

28 Responses to INAF disaster

  1. […] (UPDATE: It appears the enthusiasm for space in government doesn’t apply to Italy, as there are rumours of massive cuts at the National Institute for Astronomy – more details on the rumours here) […]

  2. MikeW says:

    Tommaso Maccacaro was until recently an astrophysicist at Brera Observatory in Milano. I’m pretty convinced he will be working hard to protect the Italian astro community from what – potentially – sounds like a funding disaster.

    • MikeW says:

      … I realise I misunderstood your last comment.

      Tommaso is President of INAF, but I now see you were referring to the President of Italy. The statement about Tommaso still holds of course.

      • andyxl says:

        Mike – like yourself, I remmember Tommaso perfectly well of course. He showed us one of my favourite recipes – spaghetti, tomato, parsley, and lots of chilli.

  3. telescoper says:

    INAF has only existed since 2002 and I’ve heard many Italian colleagues complaining about the fact that the cost of its swanky offices in Rome left it unable to spend sufficient money on astrophysics.

    Nevertheless these rumours are very worrying and the news turns out not to be as bad as it seems.

  4. telescoper says:

    last part should have read “and I hope the news turns out not to be as bad as it seems.”

  5. Valentina D'Odorico says:

    Hi, unfortunately the news is true. The President and the Scientific Advisory Committee of INAF have written to the President of the Republic, but it looks like the Government cannot be convinced in any way.
    We have created a FB group to ask for support for Italian Astrophysics and to coordinate future actions. You can join it at:
    http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=103660386348290&v=wall

    Many thanks, Valentina

  6. […] brings me to Andy Lawrence’s recent blog post which reports that the Italian Government is seriously considering closing down the INAF […]

  7. “We have created a FB group to ask for support”

    Isn’t this tantamount to admitting defeat? Who will offer (moral) support? Scientists? That is clear, and expected, and no surprise to the government. The people at large? Yes, but such support is essentially worthless:

    http://www.snopes.com/inboxer/petition/internet.asp

    My suspicion is that the situation in Italy (and perhaps Spain) with regard to corruption and the corresponding resulting financial problems is probably almost as bad as in Greece. Cuts to astronomy will be far from the worst consequences.

    The rest of the European Union has to say, in no uncertain terms, that it has to be “shape up or ship out”. Now, no-one really believes that a country will get kicked out of the common currency, or even the EU, so such threats fall on deaf ears. Bail-outs increase the suspicion that business as usual is OK; bigger goofs will just lead to bigger bailouts.

    The problem is not just national debt, but the fact that some types of speculation against currencies and countries exacerbate the problem (at the moment, for the Euro). The UK is not a member of the common currency, but far from innocent, since EU-wide regulation to stop dangerous speculation routinely gets vetoed by the UK. (The argument is that the financial sector is a larger fraction of GNP in the UK, but this is mainly because most of the real industry has died.) However, thanks to the Lisbon treaty, many things no longer require unanimous decisions, and a suitable majority could just overrule the UK. This might just happen.

    • Michael Merrifield says:

      I seem to recall that the only veto against the EU’s financial regulation proposals to the G20 last year came from Germany, who for some reason did not want to approve a clause written by the French calling for an internationally-coordinated response to financial crises. And I can’t think of any legislation previously vetoed by the UK that would have had much impact on a world-wide financial crisis. Still, it’s always nice to find a scapegoat, isn’t it?

    • Phil Uttley says:

      I don’t know what regulations could be proposed or have been proposed to stop currency speculation which wouldn’t plunge the world into a much worse financial crisis than it is already in. The reason the Euro is now weakening and in trouble is because the Eurozone admitted a large number of countries which lived on debt for years without doing what they should have done: restructuring their overly-bureaucratic and often corrupt economies. In hindsight, there should have been much more external oversight of these countries’ finances. At the same time, the German economy is too dependent on exports with not enough internal consumption by its public, who see themselves as ‘responsibly’ saving money when they are making that money off the increasing debts of the southern europeans who buy their products. When you see ‘speculation’ I see a reflection of the creditors and investors loss of confidence in the Euro because of these inherent structural problems. Passing the buck (or Euro) to regulation ignores this fundamental issue, and that is very dangerous.

      • Suppose you have a house and insure it against fire. Fine. Suppose all your neighbours also take out a fire-insurance policy on your house, so that they collect if your house burns down. Suppose that one of your neighbours works for a firm which is rewiring your house. See the problem?

        Yes, a big problem is corruption and general incompetence in Greece (both in the government and in the population) and elsewhere. However, this is exacerbated by scenarios like the above. (For “fire” read “country defaults on bond payments”; yes, you can buy such insurance even if you don’t have any bonds yourself.)

  8. Michael Merrifield says:

    Well, bringing that story dredged up from a South African website more up to-date, the relevant committee of European Parliament has recently voted to establish the European Systemic Risks Board, but it has not yet reached the point of ratification, though I don’t believe that a veto is currently threatened by the UK or any other country. In any case, no veto has been made to-date.

    Now, perhaps you could come up with some real examples to back up your allegation that financial regulation legislation “routinely gets vetoed by the UK.”

    And while we are at it, perhaps you could explain why
    if the reason that financial service are a larger fraction of UK GNP than the rest of the EU is “mainly because most of the real industry has died” here, would 60% of the private equity firms and 80% of the hedge funds in the entire EU be based in London?

    I happen to agree that having so much of the financial industry concentrated in London is bad for the UK and probably bad for the EU as well, but it does rather suggest that the industry really is concentrated here, contrary to your claim, and that accordingly the UK probably has the strongest single stake in any legislation.

  9. Alan Penny says:

    Listening to physicists talk about economics is almost as bad as listening to them talk about religion.

    “drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring”

    • Michael Merrifield says:

      According to my wife, not as bad as physicists who don’t have anything to talk about except physics.

      As for the Pierian Spring, I don’t believe that economics falls under either arts or science, so I am not sure that any amount of embibing would inspire on the topic. But then maybe listening to physicists trying to draw literary allusions is even worse than listening to those who pontificate on religion or economics.

  10. telescoper says:

    I’ve just heard (via facebook!) that the official draft finance bill tabled today does not, after all, include the scrapping of INAF. Perhaps Valentina can supply more details in due course.

    • andyxl says:

      I have seen a similar statement in an email circulated today bu Isabella Gioia. But the oscillations seem so severe… I hope this holds

      • telescoper says:

        I hear rumours of a block on recruitment until 2013, but don’t know any more than that.

      • Michael Merrifield says:

        Just heard another rumour through the local Italian grapevine that non-permanent positions are still under severe threat, but that may just be in the same sense that they are threatened here, too, or it may be related to the block on recruitment to which Peter referred.

    • Valentina D'Odorico says:

      Hi,
      it is true that INAF is no longer going to be cut and merged with CNR. However, the block of recruitment is still there and the money to research will also be cut, as I understood. So, it will be the ministry of University and Research that will have to decide how to “distribute” those cuts among the different institutes, universities etc.

      Stay tuned…

  11. john travis says:

    ScienceInsider covered this story broadly–we didn’t focus on INAF at all–and welcomes being kept updated by the scientific community.
    http://news.sciencemag.org/scienceinsider/2010/06/italy-research-institutes-saved-.html

  12. andyxl says:

    Nice clear coverage, John.

  13. […] possible closure of the Italian National Institute for Astrophysics, INAF, which I blogged about here.  It seems the immediate panic was over, as the Government pulled back from closure, although they […]

  14. […] there is also a press statement  issued by the SIU. This is the scariest astro-disaster since the INAF panic. Utrecht is a significant fraction of Dutch astronomy; it is one out of five universities in the […]

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