This morning I signed a contract with INFN, the Italian Institute for Nuclear Physics, which grants me tenure in the role of research scientist. Start date: 05/04/2009. End of penalty: never.
Am I happy about it ? Maybe I should, but I have to confess I feel absolutely nothing - a void. Signing the contract felt like signing the receipt of a mediocre meal. Lest I get flamed, let me explain why I am not rejoicing, nor am ordering a box of Dom Perignon.
It all started in 2000 when I, a post-doctoral fellow for Harvard University, decided to came back to Italy from the US. There I left a probably easy career lined up in front of me, the prestige of working for Harvard, and a salary three times larger than the one I was going to get in Italy. I did not come back because of personal issues: my wife loved living in the Chicago suburbs, near Fermilab, and no family obligations were calling us back. Rather, I wanted to return to work with the people I had left two years earlier in my alma mater studiorum, the University of Padova.
I came back with a two-year post-doctoral grant, one I had won with a national exam in Rome one year before. It was not a very stable position, but on my side I had the support of the professors of my research group. The support of a full professor in Italy is important to get a tenured position, although they too are powerless when funding cuts prevent any new hiring.
And research funds kept decreasing since 2000, in fact. INFN was one of the institutions which suffered less under the continuous offensive from the italian government (led since 2001 by Silvio Berlusconi), aimed at reducing taxes by cutting funding right and left blindly. Of course, the reduction of funds felt primarily in the lack of money to grant permanent positions.
Meanwhile, I continued to work with one two-year grant after another, paid a monthly salary close to minimum wage. Under such conditions many young researchers leave the field, in search for a better pay. I was fortunate to be able to afford working in HEP -a luxury allowed by a wealthy wife.
By the start of 2005 the horizon started to clear. Two researcher positions would soon be offered by the University of Padova, and a third would be made available by INFN. I could see at least three direct competitors for those positions, but my chances of winning one of those seats were objectively pretty high -as I later found out, the head of the commission examining the applications to one of the University position had been startled by my curriculum vitae, commenting it was worthy of a selection for professors, rather than mere researchers.
While we all waited for the announcement of the three selections, things changed. INFN decided they would no longer hold selections for single positions, one in each University where INFN had a working unit, but rather organize a giant selection in Rome, centralizing the decision of whom to hire. This would make things more transparent, since localized selections tended to be steered too easily by the local mafias, with occasional awkward results (sons and relatives of professors getting hired instead of more valuable other candidates).
Further, the University of Padova took a strange decision. They would wait for the INFN selection before launching theirs. Now, if you want to hire the best candidates, it would be more meaningful to be quicker to offer a position; but for some tactical reason, things went the other way. Further, the management of the Physics Department in Padova made it excessively clear with their local candidates that they were supposed to participate to the INFN selection if they wanted to become researchers in Padova. Only those who failed to win a INFN position could then try the University selection!
The rationale of such a diktat was apparently easy to understand: by sending its troops to the national exam, Padova could hope to win more research positions; the two they could make available were granted already, and by delaying them the odds of more researchers arriving in Padova would grow. However, there was a dark side in such a strategy: the University would end up getting the less worthy employees.
I complied with the request, went to Rome, dutifully completed two written tests (see the 42 questions of one of the tests here), and passed the first part of the selection with high scores. Among my direct local competitors, one failed the written tests, and a second one passed it. When it was time to complete the selection with the oral part of the exam, however, this latter rascal did not show up! A typical italian-syle bending of the rules for personal benefit: he had assessed that odds that some of his competitors for the research positions in Padova (me, most notably) would be hired by INFN were high, leaving him free to make a walk-over to one of the University positions. This was allowed by the Physics Department in Padova, despite all previous declarations of war against such a conduct.
I instead diligently went to the oral exam, passed it, and qualified first (among 200 candidates throughout Italy). This won me a INFN research position, which I signed on December 21st, 2005. However, such was not yet formally a tenured position: INFN had been prevented to increase its tenured personnel by the government. They could only assure us that the winners of the big selection would be passed to a tenured position by means of a formal act as soon as possible.
Time then passed, and nothing like that happened. I happily continued to do my work, but I could see a very clear difference between my position and that of the two colleagues who had in the meantime ended up winning the two research positions offered by the University -the one who had failed the written INFN test, and the one who had deserted the oral part. They were tenured, and I was not. Now, tenure is not such a big deal in countries where one easily changes job, like in the US. In Italy, tenure is everything!
INFN continued to be prevented to hire the winners of the big selection of 2005 for quite a while. At some point, they even called for a further "selection" of the winners -a bureaucratic passage which would expedite our hiring, we were explained. We all had to apply, go to Rome, have a surreal chat with the examining committee -an "oral exam"-, and come back home with our backs aching for the many pats they had received, reassured that our final tenure was imminent.
Things straggled further, but even paradoxical italian stories have an end, apparently. I was called last week by the administration of INFN, and asked to sign my contract. I did, this morning. A void of feelings, however, fills me. At 43 years of age I feel already rather old to be a researcher, and while I do my job with enthusiasm daily, I cannot help thinking that my career in the US would have been faster, less ridiculous, and more rewarding.
Oh well. After all, I would still choose to come back, if I were given a chance to repeat the decision I took nine years ago: as a INFN researcher my freedom is complete.