Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Reverse Age Discrimination

Every now and then, I rant on this blog about Italian academia. I do this because of the strong ties I have with my country (or in typical Italian fashion I should say "well, actually, with my region Abruzzo" or even "with my home town, Pescara" :-)) , and because I am saddened by the frustration I sense in the Italian colleagues I meet at conferences or I exchange emails with.

The latest installment of the saga of Italian academia I read is the commentary Reverse Age Discrimination written for Nature Physics by Francesco Sylos Labini and Stefano Zapperi, two physicists based in Rome. Their piece paints a rather bleak picture for young Italian scientists and reports on what they call "Lo Tsnunami dell'Universita' Italiana" (The Tsunami of Italian University). I encourage you to read their opinions and to look at the statistics they report on here.

The figures are amazing. Italian universities have an unusually large fraction of old professors. In Italy, 41% of the university professors are aged 60 or older and only 4% are below 40. If we consider full professors only, we discover that overall in Italy more than 47% are aged 60 or older, but for physicists this percentage reaches a hefty 64%!

Add to this picture that Italian universities have a very irregular recruitment flow, with sudden bursts of hiring based on seniority rather than on merit, and you will see that the only option
left for several talented young scientists is to move to other countries. The commentary reports that this year the French National Research Council (CNRS) selected seven young researchers (CR2) in theoretical physics, out of whom four were Italians! If we look at CS, let me go on record once more as saying that Italians in Paris would form a very strong TCS department by any measure.

Let me close by quoting from the last paragraph in the article.

To conclude, we acknowledge that some older scientists are active and productive, and that European countries should do something to keep them engaged. .... The broad question of how to use the experience of older faculty without hindering the advancement of the younger generation remains an important challenge.

I hope that this is a challenge that Italy's academic establishment will face very soon. The future of Italian science depends on it.

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