Getting tenure by force of law July 11, 2007Posted 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 [ here, here (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!