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Getting tenure by force of law July 11, 2007

Posted by dorigo in news, personal, physics, politics.

The italian  National Institute of Nuclear Physics (INFN)  is a research institution that sponsors research in High-Energy Physics, Nuclear Physics, Astroparticle Physics, Theoretical Physics, and Technology Research. It is a very important entity, which distributes funding and resources to all the italian efforts in HEP.

I currently have a position as INFN researcher which I won through a national search and a tough exam two years ago. Technically, the position is not tenured – it is going to expire on December 20th, 2010. These 5-year terms were conceived by the INFN as a means of bringing order in the selection of personnel, which used to occur by more obscure means through university-based selections where the would-be-winner was usually known in advance – and was usually not the best candidate.

I wrote about my exam in a series of posts [ herehere (the 42 questions!)here (the second exam), and  here (final standings)]  in my old Quantum Diaries blog. The interesting story is that the direction of INFN had decided the 16 positions, assigned to me and 15 other colleagues chosen from a set of more than 200 contenders, were to be made tenured “automatically” as soon as INFN had the funds to do so.

Actually, there is a more interesting story to tell… In Padova, there were at least three “strong” candidates for research positions at the end of 2005, and two researcher positions were about to be announced by Padova university. The latter are tenured, and paid by the university, not the INFN: there is no big difference, but the devil always hides in the details. 

Now, while the three candidates and other younger aspirants were waiting for these openings, the national INFN selection (which was immediately dubbed “concorsone“, big selection) was announced. Immediately, the big mushrooms in Padova made it clear to all of us fools that we all had to apply, go to Rome, and try to win those positions: only those who had participated in the big selection and had not managed to win a INFN position could then apply to the university researcher selections.

The reasoning was clear: the university wanted to maximize the number of researchers from Padova which would be funded by the INFN, to get more positions, relieve the pressure from below, and leave as much space as possible for more manouvering to fill the two university researcher positions via less-than-meritocratic means. In fact, the university openings had been delayed so much that the suspicion it was done on purpose, to wait for the INFN selection to come first, arose in many astute minds…

The thing was disappointing to me, since I would have preferred to make a career in the University, for personal reasons (I love to teach). But I complied: I went to Rome, participated in the national selection of the INFN, and won first place. Others were not as “lucky”: one of the two other strong candidates from Padova did not even pass the written tests (but I do believe it was not done on purpose), the other passed the written test but did not bother showing up for the oral part, thus throwing away an almost certain qualification for a INFN position.

Later, those two colleagues of mine smoothly won the two selections in Padova – the big mushrooms declaring they could not do more than reproach the non-sportsmanlike behavior of at least one of them. So, in the end all the three “seasoned” candidates in Padova got a position, but of the three I was clearly the one that had played most fairly – and of course, I was also the one who got the worst of it.

I was not embittered by those facts. First, because I did not care about tenure – I am wealthy enough to be unconcerned by the “safety” of a lifetime-assured 2000$/month salary. Second, because I after all only care to be able to continue doing what I have been doing – research (you still can be assigned courses as a INFN researcher if you care to). Third, because I know human nature enough to pardon the occasional lack of fairness of my colleagues – not everybody cares about one’s own integrity. Of course, my judgement of the involved individuals changed a bit in the process, but that is a detail.

So now, two years later, I am here with a temporary position. But not for long! A few months ago the INFN has been granted the necessary funding and a “green light” to proceed by the center-left government led by Romano Prodi (who during the 2006 campaign had promised to increase funding for research, and is now doing steps in the right direction after a shaky start). Now, all of us who have a temporary INFN position acquired through a open selection and lasting three years or more, can ask and obtain to be “regularized” – id est, change our position into a tenured one.

Tomorrow I will send my own letter to INFN, where I declare I meet the required criteria and ask for a regularization. Which, however, will not happen before three years from first appointment – end of 2008.

That is good to know: in December 2008 I will both get tenure and discover SUSY with CMS! Or only the latter… Whomever knows italian bureaucracy enough will agree that the former is the less probable of the two events, despite the existence of funding, declarations of intents, and written documents proving the correctness of the regularization process. Italy is arguably the country with the highest number of laws and the lowest level of legality in the european community. The dubious likelihood of discovering SUSY with 10 inverse picobarns of data stands a giant if compared to the probability that all goes smoothly with my tenure!



1. jeff - July 11, 2007

compliments. Italy is surely a strange place.

2. island - July 11, 2007

I just know that there is an ironic slant in here somewhere, to an old adage about winning, losing, and how you play the game…

3. lazopolis - July 12, 2007

“Italy is arguably the country with the highest number of laws and the lowest level of legality in the european community.”

If it’s any consolidation, Italy comes second: you are still a paradise compared to what happens in Greece.

4. carlbrannen - July 12, 2007


And by the way, your results on the test were awesome. Along that line, I recall another thing that Herb Chen told me a couple decades ago: “Don’t worry Carl. One way or another, the cream always rises to the top.”

5. Dimitri Terryn - July 12, 2007

“Italy is arguably the country with the highest number of laws and the lowest level of legality in the european community.”

I disagree. Sounds more like Belgium. 😉

Seems you got on the short end of the all too common realpolitik that seems to be part of university life. I have experienced Italian bureaucrats one or two time, I feel for you. I really hope that it will turn out ok.

“assured 2000$/month salary”…is that what a full time INFN researcher gets? I do hope you are kidding…

6. dorigo - July 12, 2007

Hi Dimitri,

no, I am not kidding! My (net) monthly salary is around 1650 euros per month, which, at a “normal” exchange rate of 1.2$/euro, is 2000$.

Of course, the salary is not the whole story – the net amount is only after the (automatic) deduction of taxes, a (similarly ridiculous) retirement fund, and an extensive healthcare plan. And I get the luxurious extra amount of 7.13 euros per working day, in the form of lunch tickets. Did I forget anything ? Oh, sure, wait. I also get free parking in the campus.


7. dorigo - July 12, 2007

Hi Jeff, Carl, thank you.

Island, the whole thing is ironic. Actually, if you ask me, life itself is ironic. The rise of intelligent beings proclaiming an anthropic principle is an ironic incident in the purposeless randomness of the universe.

Lazopolis, I do think Greece is not far from us in that respect. For what I know, it’s a good match though to see who wins.

Cheers all,

8. Andrea Giammanco - July 12, 2007

Two years ago I was there, but I was very skeptical about the blindness of the selection, so I didn’t invest seriously in the preparation for the exam… and of course I failed. (Maybe I would have failed anyway, of course.)
But when I saw that the selection was much less biased than anyone expected, I realized that I had done a wrong choice (well, it WAS biased on the basis of the experiment, somebody did a statistical analysis;), but it was incredibly unbiased with respect to italian standards). I will not repeat this mistake, and before the next round I will keep my time just to study (my current employer will not be happy, but he will understand…)

I’m also happy that you are being “regularized” for a very egoistic reason, because at some point there was a rumour around, that you (= the winners of two years ago) would not have been, but you would have had to fight with the other candidates at the next national selection (with extra points as a compensation)… so, of course, nobody else would have had a chance!

> Italy is surely a strange place.

The funniest part was that there was a “verbal promise” that these positions would have been regularized at some point, but this was not written in any official document.
And we italians are teached since childhood to never believe a promise until it is written with blood 😉

9. Andrea Giammanco - July 12, 2007

> “assured 2000$/month salary”…is that what a full time INFN researcher gets? I do hope you are kidding…

Until very recently, it was much less.
Indeed, I’m surprised that it is so *much*!
(I realize that I tend to share the typical italian reasoning: by cutting the salary, you could hire more people…)
(Although I’m currently paid by another country and of course my salary is significantly higher.)

10. jeff - July 12, 2007

What is positively remarkable about the italian system is that top quality research IS done by italians IN ITALY. That italians do high quality research abroad is not a surprise. SO much for compliments.

I am in the italian system. But I am a hybrid, half american, and find it really nauseating to see that italians are far away from finding the right approach. They fill their mouths with buzz words like “meritocracy”. They are so intoxicated that they are not aware of how intrinsically sick their system is.

Italians suffer from strange original sins (deeply rooted) and just cann’t break away from absurd ways of “thinking”. This is tragic especially when it comes to “jobs” like those in science research or university. I love Italy but it is a fact that I earn now as an associate professor what I earned 10 years ago in the US with a post doc position.

The idea that you would have more people work by lowering salaries is absurd. The idea that money should be distributed uniformily (“a pioggia” = like rain) rather than focused is absurd. The idea that a relatively young person be given a permanent job is absurd. It is absurb that those many italians that have successfully worked abroad and know how it WORKS in other countries desire and insist on agonizing for many years just to get a poorly paid permanent job, with little prospects of a scientific carreer, rather than revolt and insist on a new way of recruiting. I find it absurd that these talented people accept having to take exams to get a few positions. I find it absurd that these people pretend to be shocked or suprised that the exams be biased. I would be surprised if they weren’t! I find it absurd that italians really believe that to make the best recruitment you need unbiased (fair) exams. The best way to get rid of biased exams is to abolish exams and make the people that do the recruiting be ENTIRELY RESPONSBILE. “I should be able to hire who I wish, using the criteria I decide, and of course will pay the price for my choice knowing that my career is at stake”. But I know I have go too far for the italian readers.

11. carlbrannen - July 13, 2007

Ouch. I also thought the $2000 per month was an exaggeration. That has to be a struggle as Italy is more expensive than most of the US. I hope that’s after taxes are taken out.

12. Andrea Giammanco - July 13, 2007

Carl: yes, it’s the net salary without taxes.
But I don’t feel that Italy is an expensive place, with a few exceptions (e.g. living in Milan is indeed quite expensive… but by law a public employee has to be paid the same amount of money irrespective of where he works, so the same amount of money is considered small in the North, and reasonable in the South).

Jeff: your opinion is shared by most of the italian researchers, and I thought the same until very recently. I changed my mind when I knew something about the french system, which is very similar to the italian one (actually, I suspect that historically the italian one was modeled out of the french one). Of course the french system is not perfect (and all french researchers complain a lot about it) but it looks like it works much better than the italian one. So I start to think that the problem is not in the exam.

Of course I don’t like to waste my time at any competition, just in re-reading my mechanics and thermodynamics undergraduate books because the exam will be mainly on that.
But a really unbiased system has to be based on common knowledge of basic concepts…

Why I think that an unbiased selection, as in France or (*laughs*) Italy, is superior to the typical anglo-saxon selection (of which I have a lot of experience, and that I like because I don’t have to study before: I just go, I tell what I’ve done recently and what I like to do, and if everything goes fine I get a job: really Heaven!): unfortunately, even in science there are trends, based on how fashionable is a specific research activity at a certain time. Although my career has not been so long (only 8 years including PhD) I’ve already seen several waves of “fancy” researches, with people hired very easily if they were doing the right thing at the right moment, and very brilliant people still waiting just because nobody cared for what they were doing.
This can be accepted up to a certain degree; but since even physicists are rational agents, this leads naturally to an excess of homogeneity and (ouch) conformism.
When the average crackpot blames the conformism of scientists as the main reason why his/her petty theory is not cited, not invited to conferences etc., it’s very hard to answer “no, there is no conformism in science” (although it’s very often possible to answer “ok, maybe, BUT your petty theory is bullshit”).
You can have the luxury to explore unconventional theories, or just things that nobody cares, only after you have a permanent position (or if your boss shares your views and promises to support your career at any cost). But before getting any, you have to be productive, and produce things that somebody cares.

The problem of the italian system, in my view, is that it takes the worse of the two systems:
– it forces people to the hypocrisy of a tough exam on basics;
– it is biased.

13. island - July 13, 2007

The rise of intelligent beings proclaiming an anthropic principle is an ironic incident in the purposeless randomness of the universe.

Wow, unsupported non-scientific dogma from a liberal scientist…

But that’s not ironic anymore, as I’ve come to expect it from scientists, since running into people like Lawrence Krauss who use really strong scientific arguments like…. that’s crazyto shoot down evidence to the contrary… 😉

Or when people like Lenny Susskind and Richard Dawkins tell us that there is so much evidence for non-random purpose in nature that it requires a multiverse just to beat-back the IDists…


But when you look at CMB map, you also see that the structure that is observed, is in fact, in a weird way, correlated with the plane of the earth around the sun. Is this Copernicus coming back to haunt us? That’s crazy. We’re looking out at the whole universe. There’s no way there should be a correlation of structure with our motion of the earth around the sun — the plane of the earth around the sun — the ecliptic. That would say we are truly the center of the universe.
-Lawrence Krauss

That’s Crazy!

That’s the best refutation that anybody’s ever come up with, yet they’ve given themselves an unlimited amount of time to explain it away, without bothering to give equal time for the most apparent implication of the evidence… which, by rights, should spawn a flurry of research into the biocentric implication.

The problem here isn’t “irony” it is what Brandon Carter termed, “anticentrist dogma” that doesn’t fit the observations, which leads to absurdities by scientists, like I mentioned.

That ain’t ironic, it’s pure, unadulterated bullshit.

Welcome to their club, Dorigo.

14. island - July 13, 2007

I have to say one more thing about this, Tommaso, because you really disappoint me with this one.

I want to to see how conversations about this subject that I have with scientists and othersalways go.

They go like this.

1) I do science, while “they” try to deny science with dogma.

2) This is an extremely rare case where somebody actually picked up on that fact, and you should pay very close attention to the fact that I do science while “they” try to hide from it.


re: island
As a “neutral observer” of this discussion, with a science degree but no formal knowledge of (or chops enough to handle, unfortunately) graduate level physics, I’m still waiting for somebody with the same understanding/experience as island clearly demonstrates with this topic to confront him on it.

My own instincts are to think Davies and the Anthropic Principle are out to lunch — but my own instincts tell me a lot of things that aren’t supported by reality.

Please don’t give me any crap about my strongly supported beliefs, unless you plan to mix some science with your dogma.

Thanks, and I’m truly sorry that this happened.

15. dorigo - July 13, 2007

Hi Island,

oh, don’t be mad at me for a sarcastic comment! I have a wife already…

I think you should not be bothered too much by it, since it comes from somebody who knows very little of the matter, and uses his own dogmas and indeed some sarcasm to fill the gaps.

I am not too sorry I wrote that comment, because it spurred your posts, which I liked reading. No, I do not think I belong to a club of dogmatists just because I decide to use some dogmatism to fill the gaps in my instruction.


16. dorigo - July 13, 2007

Andrea, Jeff,

the recruitment of scientists is difficult, for reasons you both mentioned in various forms. But it is more so in Italy only because Italy is a country where clientelism is stronger than elsewhere, and where laws are not followed if at all possible.

So I would not discuss the evils of the italian recruitment system too much – it is only a by-product IMO.

Those are my two cents anyways…

17. island - July 13, 2007

I’m at my best when I’m pissed… 😉

Thanks for not getting angry with me over my reply.

18. jeff - July 13, 2007

Tommaso. The recruitment system is but a detail, a terrible by product? Maybe but it feeds back and makes problems worse. The young intellectuals, the cream of the nation, are corrupted into an unhealthy way of considering their jobs. Giammarco can say that many/most researchers agree with what I say, but then where are the revolts, the new proposals, the refusal to submit to this stupid idea of exams.
By the way Giammanco…. The french system is better than the italian simply because the french are more serious, but my judegment on exams to recruit scientists doesn’t budge. It is contradictory that a system give degrees on one hand and then doesn’t trust its own previous judgement. Students pass their numerous and difficult exams, write a thesis, defend it, write and/or contribute to scientific papers, go to conferences and then the State says “If you want to be permanent you have to take an exam!”. Absurb

19. tulpoeid - July 14, 2007

“If it’s any consolidation, Italy comes second: you are still a paradise compared to what happens in Greece.”

Oh, A.L. is here and he’s right, just listening to people arguing about working in their own country is plain awesome… However the American friends should note that the salary mentioned by Dorigo fully covers medical expenses and retirement — for the time being.

“The rise of intelligent beings proclaiming an anthropic principle is an ironic incident in the purposeless randomness of the universe.”

This is why I try to read this blog in the morning… it makes my day.

20. dorigo - July 14, 2007

Jeff, I of course agree wholeheartedly that having to withstand an exam after twenty years of studies is ridiculous and adding insult (the exam) to injury (the degraded situation). But revolts… Italians are not people easy to get into a revolution. We tend to excel in the art of compromise instead.

21. dorigo - July 14, 2007

Hi Tulpoeid,

that is right, I have benefits. And indeed, I do not bitch too much about my salary.

And thanks for your appreciation of this site, where you are always welcome.


22. Andrea Giammanco - July 16, 2007

Uhm, I agree more with Tommaso than with myself 😉

(ps: Jeff, Giammanco is my family name, you can just call me Andrea.)

23. dorigo - July 16, 2007

I also find sometimes I disagree with myself. It is a good sign. Consistency requires you to be as ignorant as you were a year ago…

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