The Runaway Brains

The runaway brains

Two symptoms that all not is not well with the Italian research and university system are the number of Italian researchers who move abroad (noticeable) and the number of foreigners who move to Italian universities and research institutions (nearly zero).

Substantial, and expensive, structural changes would be needed to make good use of the talent that abounds in Italian universities. Instead, like in a mismanaged company, every few years there is a “reform” (it would be called a “reorganization” in a company) that is not accompanied by any additional funding, and whose effect is typically to just add to the misery, until, that is, the next reform a few years later.

Anyways, a few years ago, it was decided that something had to be done about Italian researchers moving abroad. This brain drain problem is more colorfully called fuga dei cervelli in Italian, which means, more or less, runaway brains.

The return of the brains

The response was the following zany scheme. A special fund was created to support visiting positions of Italians (or, actually, foreigners as well) employed by foreign research institutions. The fund would pay for a visit of length between three and five years at an Italian university.

The plan was called “rientro dei cervelli.” The official English translation is “brain gain,” but it actually means “the return of the brains.”

Notice that the three year minimum seemed to have been cleverly chosen so that one had to give up one’s job in order to take the position. One can be away for one year, by taking a sabbatical or a leave, possibly two years by combining a sabbatical or a leave, but few places would let you away for three years.

After five years, however, it’s unclear what the “returned brain” is supposed to do.

The cheated brains

The program started in 2001, and the first positions have been expiring last year. Supposedly, people were expected to apply for jobs at Italian universities, but for the last few years a scandalous underfunding has created a complete freeze in hiring. Within the larger tragedy of a whole generation of researchers who have not been able to find jobs, lied the smaller farce of the “returned brains” that had no job openings to apply to.

Finally, another special fund was set apart to create tenured positions for the “returned brain” people, so that they could stay in Italy, as in the spirit of the whole thing.

But not so quickly. Each appointment of a “returned brain” to one of those positions had to be approved by the CUN, the National Council of Universities. This union-like outfit interpreted the regulations so that people could only be appointed to positions lower than or equal to those from which they quit five years ago in order to go back to Italy. So if someone was a postdoc abroad at the time she went back to Italy, well, no job for her, even though in the intervening five years she has led a lab and has now sufficient experience to be an associate professor.

Things weren’t too bad for Aldo Colleoni, however. According to news report, he was able to secure a tenured professorship at the University of Macerata in light of the fact that he was previously a professor at the Zokhiomj University in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Indeed, such university does not seem to exist, and Professor Colleoni does not appear to have ever worked outside of Italy. As the honorary counsel of Mongolia, however, he was able to authenticate his documents himself when he applied for the Italian position. (If the news reporting is accurate, this might be the most brazen case of resume-padding ever.)

Nature has an article that valiantly tries to explain the whole mess (thanks to Luca Aceto for the link). There are also online comments.

6 thoughts on “The Runaway Brains

  1. For the Italian speaking readers, I suggest Gian Antonio Stella’s article about the issue of the “Mongolian professor” that appeared on the Corriere della Sera:
    You’ll greatly enjoy Stella’s style.

    Also, it seems that, after the publication of the article, the Italian Ministry for University and Research has blocked Colleoni’s hiring in order to investigate the issue. Unfortunately, I’m unable to give a reference about this, and I don’t know if the thing has been decided yet.

  2. What do you think, Luca Trevisan could come to Italy (say, “La Sapienza”) one day and what he needs for that?

  3. Still for the Italian speaking readers (or should it be just “Italian readers”?), an update on Colleoni’s story (still by G.A. Stella):

    By its own admission, the Mongolian University where Colleoni was supposed to be a professor is not really a university, but simply a place where some unorganized series of lectures are held. However, Colleoni exibited a certificate stating that he was an “ordinary regular teacher” at the Mongolian university. Now, the word “ordinary” sounds like the Italian word for “full professor” (“(professore) ordinario”), but clearly doesn’t have the same meaning in English. Finally, the certificate has been authenticated by Colleoni himself, as he’s also onorary consul in Mongolia

  4. UPDATE: The Italian Labour Court (TAR – Tribunale Amministrativo Regionale) has reinstated Prof. Colleoni to his job, by invalidating Minister Mussi’s decree that blocked his hiring.

    Oy veh.

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