Researchers To Boycott Recruitment System
    By Tommaso Dorigo | June 25th 2009 09:16 AM | 31 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    In a few days italian post-docs working in high-energy physics will be asked to gather for a nasty exam, held by the INFN -the italian institute for nuclear physics- to qualify valiant researchers for future hiring in the institute.

    The exam generated a wave of outrage among the very pool of people at which it is aimed: the scores of "precari" (temporary workers) who are spending the best years of their life to try and make a career in particle physics.  Let me explain why that is so.

    In Italy the hiring system for physicists is troubled by the lack of funds and positions, the very low salaries, and the exploitation of cheap workmanship of young post-docs who do not manage or do not want to leave Italy for a better paid, more secure job in the US or in other EU countries. These are for the better part quite skilled, extremely qualified scientists, with years of experience in data analysis or detector building in high-energy physics experiments. Among them you can find fresh post-docs as well as more mature scientists who, five or even ten years after their Ph.D., still fail to get a permanent position, and live on typically one- or two-year grants (in most cases barely above minimum wage thresholds).

    With the exam, dubbed "R5", apparently the INFN management intends to create some kind of certification of candidates for permanent research positions. The idea would be that once the institute became capable of hiring new personnel (something which is not granted given the current situation), it would have a ready list from which to pick. However, this fights with the fact that they would still have to make a selection in that case, so this preliminary "qualification" granted by the R5 exam appears an overburden. More than that: my young colleagues rightly perceive it as a really screwed-up way to hire the best candidates, since the selection is constructed to entirely neglect their curricula, and only base the ranking on problem-solving skills and written knowledge of particle physics.

    I support the outrage of my colleagues, but despite the few appeals that have circulated among post-docs to boycott the exam, my personal advice is to humbly go and do what is being asked. The risk they run otherwise is that INFN really ends up using the ranking obtained from the R5 exam results when it is time for new hirings. At that point, the list will contain the names of the least qualified researchers of the whole pool: those who had nothing to lose, no tight schedules to meet, no plane tickets to buy to come back (with just a three-week forewarning) from foreign laboratories where their more qualified colleagues work and are recognized for their capabilities; those who have worse curricula and less self-esteem, but who maybe remember better the books they read during undergraduate school.

    Of course, the best thing for everybody would be if nobody participated: then, the INFN management would have to come to terms with the failure of their plan and the ridiculous nature of this R5 certification, and they would probably change this foolish recruitment strategy. The other possibility would be if young researchers organized an active protest, physically preventing the exam from taking place. However, this is a not entirely democratic possibility, and should be seen as an extrema ratio.

    Below is the result of an ongoing spontaneous poll taken among the more than 300 HEP post-docs who applied to the selection, aimed at ascertained what is the general consensus about participating or boycotting the selection. The full table, with the name of each candidate and his or her choice, is here. So far we have a total of 117 answers, thus distributed:

    1. Not going to the exam: 63 (53.8+-4.6%);

    2. Don't know yet: 4 (3.4+-1.7%);

    3. Will attend the exam: 2 (1.7+-1.2%);

    4. Would not go if many chose not to go: 31 (26.5+-4.1%);

    5. I lean toward going: 4 (3.4+-1.7%);

    6. I lean toward not going: 15 (12.8+-3.1%);

    7. I did not even enroll in the selection: 18 (15.4+-3.3%);

    Note that the total percentage exceeds 100%, since the last category represents people who have no right to participate to the selection; also, some of those who answered (4) also picked a choice between (5) and (6).

    What to get from these (preliminary) results ? I think there is the potential to really boycott the exam, since in total there is a convergence of almost 80% of participants to the poll toward not going (classes 1 and 4).
    However, there is a caveat: the data clearly must contain a strong bias. I have reason to believe that those who have nothing to object to the exam have boycotted the poll !

    In fact, knowing Italy and Italians, I strongly doubt that all these 300 researchers will ever loyally agree to stand like a single person and fight injustice, when it is easier to individually bow one's head and comply. "Tengo famiglia" ("I have a family") is the motto, sadly -and this be intended without any hint of reproach: the fact is that historically, Italians know how things go in their country. And this looks like a textbook situation when protesting against the recruitment choice of INFN and deciding to not attend the exam is principled and just, but it is almost guaranteed to make things worse, while sheepishly obeying rules is more likely to bring home a result.

    I, for one, have to admit: I would hate to be in the situation of having to choose, but I would probably go, and diligently make the exam (but I would indeed say so in the poll!). I bet that the exam will take place, and I think it is a shame, but it is not the most shameful thing happening in Italy these days...


    Well, exams surely suck for most of the people who have to pass them, except for the "self-confident best ones" who know that the exams will strengthen their position and ego (and they should never be too sure!). ;-)

    On the other hand, exams are surely good for the system as a whole. It may be a good idea. It would be just good if an exam could eliminate so many people in that field who are manifestly incompetent.

    Lubos, you look obsessed by "incompetent physicists". Who is competent, and who is to judge ? What is the scale: the number of published papers ? The impact factor ? The curriculum of the candidate? Or the capability of solving a textbook problem ?

    The problem with examining people with a very high and specialized level of instruction is that what the exams test has nothing to do with the capability of the examined person to do well his or her job. 
    Exams for post-doctoral experimental particle physicists cannot test their ability with writing code, understanding systematic uncertainties, or editing papers. What the exams can test, at best, is how well the candidates remember their textbooks on particle physics, which has very little to do with the "competence" to do one's daily job as a particle physicist. Selecting the people who remember the textbooks is a blunder.

    Thus the outrage. And "eliminating so many manifestly incompetent people" would mean not being able to run the experiments any more. We need work force, we do not need bloody geniuses. Nobody is a genius here, in fact. I only see people capable of performing very specialized tasks around me. This is what is needed. We leave geniuses for string theory.

    You're asking many questions about the incompetent physicists and who is to judge etc. - but doesn't INFN have answers to all your questions? Why the hell are you pretending that these questions are rhetorical?

    The incompetency of a scientist may slightly depend on the test (or, more generally, method to measure) but there is a certain universal core that doesn't. Just look around, in the real world, and make a table how various people would pass different kinds of tests. You will see a very high correlation between the different tests, confirming a healthy and objective core of any of these tests.

    It's extremely bad if experimental particle physics is full of people who can only perform routine mechanical tasks, as you say. None of them would be able to invent his own experimental test or arrangement? None of them is good in theory? I don't think that they should even be called "physicists" and their number is probably redundant by a very high factor, an issue that makes the present era so inefficient relatively e.g. to the 1960s. It's part of my reason why I think it is such a good idea to get rid of the piles of incompetent people. The other reason is that the incompetent people have begun to distort the very notion of the scientific method and the image "what is supported and what is not" in the broader scientific and general public. The global warming hysteria is a stunning example from a different field of science.

    All these things can be boiled down to the proliferation of low-quality people in science, and I am sure that whatever test one chooses, it will make the problem less severe. That may also be the reason why you *oppose* any kind of tests, right?

    Who are the people who write the questions for the exam?

    The members of the examining committee. Usually research directors of INFN. I am going to post the questions given at the exam I participated in four years ago, which was probably similar to what will be this one. There were 42 questions and exercises, to be answered in two hours. It was made such that it was virtually impossible to do everything correctly.

    I am one of the people that decided the questions Tommaso refers to.
    I do not want to enter in any way in your free discussion except for pointing out that the questions were so many on purpose. To give latitude to the candidates to choose the ones they preferred amongst many. It was a threshold to pass. Nobody was supposed to answer correctly to everything.



    Dear Nando,

    how nice to see you here. Yes, maybe I should have made it more clear that the "purpose" for which the questions were made was to really allow the ranking of candidates. Setting the bar impossibly high is a good strategy, although it made everybody unhappy for a day or two.

    By the way, I know that the 42 questions were tried by a INFN staff researcher beforehand, and proven to be doable in 2 hours... Unfortunately, when one is at an exam there are factors that worsen the performance significantly. That is why I still think that post-docs who could do everything perfect in a real situation are exceedingly rare.

    This is the one thing I don't like about this profession.  It's like never ending school.  You do all the stuff you have to to get a PhD.  Make good grades, pass all kinds of qualifying exams, do good thesis research, publish it,   and defend it. Isn't that enough already with the effing test.   A paper and pencil test cannot measure the practical knowledge, and intuition needed to do real life research.  If this was some kind of on the job trial it would make some sense.  In short I would boycott.   Just IMHO.
    Science advances as much by mistakes as by plans.
    See, Hontas, the job of a scientist is always to study. There is no real end. On the other hand, having to demonstrate one's capabilities over and over and over again is indeed rather depressing.
    Yes, to be a scientist is not only to do one's own research, but to study the state of one's field.  That said, after a certain point, a exam is not useful.  I hate to trot out a overused old quote, but all that needs to be said about this has been said already. 
    I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world. A. Einstein
    A test like the one you describe could not possibly capture that imagination which all scientist need to come up with the new ideas and new directions.  All it can do is test one's mastery of old ideas and worn out directions for research. 
    Science advances as much by mistakes as by plans.
    This is a good point Hontas, and I totally agree. That said, it is not easy to gauge the imaginativeness of candidates to a position by other means either. So the problem exists. As I said above, I think that in a balanced system the US method of recruitment is the best one.

    Hola Tommaso,

    What would be the preferred method for hiring physicists in Italy? (Let's assume the funding would be in place to carry out this plan.)

    Hola Luboš,

    What is the process for hiring physicists in the Czech Republic and do you advocate it?

    Dear Fred,

    with just a little bit of oversimplification, I think that the process is the ex-Soviet bloc is largerly either to 1) be a communist who was sitting, without much activity or expertise, on his or her chairs during the communism, and got old enough to be verified as being convenient for the party and the rotten system, or 2) to be younger, and to be defending the system built by the people from 1).

    No, I don't approve of it, as you could see by disapproving Tommaso's personal attitudes that want to import a similar system to Italy.

    This is surely not a universal classification but it probably applies to more than 50% of the body in the Czech Republic even in the late 2000s.

    Hi Fred, I was thinking of you yesterday, I thought strange that none of the recent posts had triggered a comment from you :)
    I think a selection based on written tests is useless. A screening of curricula and reference letters and a colloquium, as is done in the US, would work much better. At the beginning with such a system we would see a lot of manouvers to hire the nephew of this one or the friend of this other professor, but eventually, if funding were tied to results rather than a undifferentiated sparse rain tied to the number of tenured scientists working on projects, we would see a better outcome.

    Insisting on exams is due to the fact that in Italy everybody tries to cheat and force through the system "their" candidates. Exams can be steered too, but if done well it becomes difficult to cheat. But exams cause a strong psychological burden on candidates, stress, time spent studying useless topics. Ineffective and outdated.

    O.K. Luboš,

    We'll put you down in the column as an enemy of the state. lol. Are you implying that the psychological chains imposed by the old Soviet Union are still enslaving your country's various social movements? Which leads to this question: which has a longer half-life, radioactive decay or the residual effects of imperialism and which one is more detrimental to life itself? As far as the hiring process goes in the U.S. it's all over the map depending on the industry. We're in the same boat as everyone else.

    I see that Tommaso has failed to admit that he is a hot-shot and does very well on tests of these kinds.

    The fact is that it takes all sorts to run a physics experiment. It can't be put down to a test. Only someone addicted to mindless bureaucratic worship (of the sort currently universal in the free world) would think that a single test is the way to pick the winners. This is done because it is "fair".

    The reason government is so inefficient is largely because of the insistence that it be fair. The way that private enterprise would solve this question is that the managers would choose who to hire. One presumes that they would lose their positions if they failed to be competitive with other managers, and so would choose candidates that maximized the output of physics. At the very least a successful manager would be one who fails to exercise his power in such a way as to punish and eventually eliminate his good workers. However, if physics were run this way, wages would be substantially decreased for most physicists as there is quite a large excess of labor available as compared to positions.

    When this sort of efficiency is attempted by government, one ends up with cronyism of the sort that Luboš describes. That is because control has been given to management without competition.

    That would be a very American way of judging performance in most American industries.  Performance can be reduced to money brought in, or product produced. However for physics it does not work so well.  You said:
    The reason government is so inefficient is largely because of the insistence that it be fair. The way that private enterprise would solve this question is that the managers would choose who to hire. One presumes that they would lose their positions if they failed to be competitive with other managers, and so would choose candidates that maximized the output of physics.
    Which begs a question.  How can one measure the output of a physicist?  Is the output better if a physicist has published a couple hundred mostly insignificant papers, or if they have published 20 seminal  papers?

    A fundamental problem in all this is that one rarely knows the true value of a scientist work in the moment it is being done.  Case in point I read somewhere that during James Clerk Maxwell's lifetime his equations for the electromagnetic field were not considered his greatest achievement.  His work on steam engines was.
    Science advances as much by mistakes as by plans.
    Well, the output of a physicist, like that of any other scientist or researcher, can be judged rather accurately, but with some delay -a few to ten or twenty years in critical cases- by looking at the impact factor of his or her publications, or other measures which account for not just how many papers were published, but how much those were cited in other scientists' publications.
    A simple such measure is the hirsch index, which counts the number of papers N a scientist has authored which have received N or more citations.

    The problem is that indeed, a paper may sit for seven years without a citation and then explode. A clear example is the Weinberg and Salam unification of weak and electromagnetic interactions, which rested on dusty shelves from 1967 to 1973.  But there are other examples, and who knows how many other papers are waiting for their moment of glory...

    "Full many a gem of purest ray serene
    the dark unfathom'd caves of Ocean bear,
    Full many a flower was born to blush unseen
    and waste its sweetness in the desert air."

    (Th.Gray, Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard)

    More generally, why should it be that papers and impact factor should be a representation of how much use it was to employ (even a theoretical) physicist? It could be that there were other advantages to having them on the staff, things that don't show up in these measures. The intangibles can only be judged this way.

    A common, if vulgar, example is when two physicists marry. Sometimes an institution can't have the good one unless they also provide a job for the mediocre one. This happens much more often than people would like to admit. Basically it amounts to nepotism. My point is that it is much easier for private enterprise to conform to this human need than government, for which fairness is so all important. Essentially, the extra job is a perquisite that adds expense to the hire just like dental insurance, and consequently reduces the pay available for the primary hire.

    Meanwhile, PRD kicked out our paper on mixing matrices and we're deciding on another. My tendency is to send it to a journal that does quantum information theory. And I got permission from arXiv to upload the paper on gravity I wrote (that got the honorable mention in the gravity essay contest). I'm beefing up the references section. Not so as to provide citations to my friends (as one might suppose based on this discussion), but instead to provide the reader with a convenient method of accessing their papers. Actually, the essay contest was limited to 1500 words so the bibliography was ridiculously short.

    Tommaso said
    "... Insisting on exams is due to the fact that in Italy everybody tries to cheat and force through the system "their" candidates. ...".

    What if there were enough jobs for everybody who wanted to be a physicist,
    if the pay were high enough (or the cost of living low enough) that most of the physicists could live a decent life, although not rich ?

    A system that was mostly like that was the old Soviet Union research institute system, and maybe parts of the French system, as to which Alain Connes said in Tehran in 2005 in

    "... I believe that the most successful systems so far were these big institutes in the Soviet union, like the Landau institute, the Steklov institute, etc. Money did not play any role there, the job was just to talk about science. It is a dream to gather many young people in an institute and make sure that their basic activity is to talk about science without getting corrupted by thinking about buying a car, getting more money, having a plan for career etc ...
    Of course in the former Soviet Union there were no such things as cars to buy etc so the problem did not arise.
    In fact CNRS comes quite close to that dream too ... the French system is not based on money but it might change. Intellectuals have for long cultivated a profound despise for money which at least was very present
    in my generation. When for example I applied to CNRS I applied for a low
    rank position because I cared so much more for “time” than for money. ...".

    Such institutes produced interesting results, such as Grisha Perelman's proof of the Poincare conjecture,
    for which he was awarded a Fields Medal which he declined.

    Tony Smith

    Hi Tommaso, and Lobos.

    I am among the candidates of the "maturity" exam, and I will probably go, sadly agreeing with Tommaso's advice. I even quite agree with Lubos (!), I agrree exams are not a problem, on the contrary I think they should be enforced periodically even to permanent staff :) That would be really funny.

    Indeed, while this exam seems devised to cut the number "incompetent" physicists hired for temporary positions by INFN (a good objective), the sad reality is to me that this exam makes explicit that the INFN (director) does not trust his recruiting staff (commission, local section and IS coordinators).

    Yes, director, probably the best choice would have been to examine and select them :)

    I am in favour of written+oral exams, but it's ridiculous that this selection doesn't take into account the curriculum at all.
    I am going to boycott this selection, despite my will to come back to Italy as a researcher and my complete disregard for the fact that the salary is much lower than in any other western country, just because I feel offended by the incredible lack of transparency of all this.
    The only official announcement says so little about the conditions of this competition that we don't even know what we are competing for.
    It says that the winners (not specified how many) will qualify for the possibility to be called for a temporary position, but it doesn't tell what kind of temporary position, for how many years, with what salary and type of contract, nor it says whether these positions are tenure-tracks-like (as hinted by some seniors, in the corridors), and doesn't tell when these positions would start (something that, according to the same corridor rumours, is unknown to INFN itself), which is a very relevant question in particular when talking about a temporary position: what if one wins this competition and another one abroad at the same time? What is the most rational thing for him to do, accepting the other position or refusing it while waiting for being called by INFN? And what if he has to wait for years, with no salary in the meantime?
    On the other hand, the official opening was explicitly stating that the INFN is *not* promising to hire the winners of this competition, therefore it is well possible that the people doing the best exams will not be hired at all, if they have no sufficient ties inside the system. And since there will be no ranking among the winners (well, at least this is the unofficial statement, but it's not written anywhere), there is not even the consolation of saying "this guy was so much better than the other winners, but he has not being hired yet"...

    For all these reasons, I felt too disgusted to start investing my time on studying for the R5 exam and pay the airplane ticket (which would cost quite a lot, given the short notice and the fact that it's the time of the year when most foreigners want to visit Italy...). I decided to invest my time in working hard and make sure that I publish with the shortest delay about what I'm working on, thus improving my CV and raising my chances to get a good position elsewhere.
    For a more serious competition with clear rules, well, I would have participated without any doubt.

    Andrea, I totally agree with the reasons you list for ignoring the R5 selection, and I support those who decide to leave it unattended. However, I cannot avoid predicting that the R5 exam will not go unattended, and that INFN will try to use its results somehow.

    No problem, I was already sadly making the same prediction...

    Tommaso and Andrea.
    I totally agree with your opinions on the R5.

    Just let me say, one should avoid blaming people that will go. It would be like asking people imprisoned for justice errors to try escaping. When they should just avoid wasting any little chance, their would just ruin their lives. This can not be asked. And indeed you tommaso adviced to go, albeit sadly.

    I think the only other reasonable advice would be to apply elsewhere, abroad.

    On the other hand, who one should probably blame is the INFN staff, researchers, employees, and in particular those who participate in the decision making inside INFN; they are the ones that INFN needs, and they have the power to do something. I am thinking to a strike, a common petition.. whatever.

    I am not aware of any concrete action in such sense. The public position of INFN researchers and of the II and IV lines (directors) were not enough to avoid the commission to be formed. Either there is a common consensus that this selection is good, or nobody is willing to risk an infinitesimal bit of their career/position/relations.


    This "concorso" was decided by the INFN direction based on a majority of votes. There was one vote against, namely by the representative of the ricercatori, who represented the overwhelming opposition of the ricercatori against this initiative. Four more members of the direction abstained. Many ricercatori refused to take part in the committees.
    My preoccupation is that many of the best people are essentially excluded by this concorso because they are abroad, like a postdoc should be. Taking days off and paying a ticket out of your own pocket is something few people are likely to do for this examination.
    So INFN ends up with a list of people who are good in solving textbook calculations, but many of the people with courage, initiative and creativity are effectively excluded.

    Thanks Rolf.
    I agree with you. Do you know also who elaborated the idea of this concorso, in the first place?

    One may also say that maybe INFN looks exactly for people good at solving textbook calculations :)

    There were some interesting comments in Smolin's book "The Trouble with Physics": he observed that since the 70ies, due to the large amount of data from accelerators, High Energy Physics needed just an army of calculators, to get cross-sections right etc.. Absolutely no need for creativity and independent-thinking.

    Then, I say, what you do with an army in times of peace? At best they fix missing pieces of calculations (like going here and there cleaning garbage - Naples) or worse they occupy all positions and replicate the model ad libitum. Thus no need for creativity even now.



    now you touched a point on which I would like to go against the stream.

    I do not think that, on average, experimental particle physicists are very strong at creativity and independent thinking. I do not see it around me, and I do not think they are brought up like that. In fact, what is true is the opposite: by conforming and doing the work as others do before them, they survive in a difficult environment. If Genius is 10% inspiration and 90% transpiration, I think the average HEP physicist arrives at 99% transpiration...

    So I think this is a misconception. Whether it would be good to have more imaginative people in hep, now that's another matter, and I concur, imagination is always a wonderful thing. But I do not see selections in Italy aimed at that, and I do not see people employed in HEP jobs doing things which require independent thinking.
    And since those are qualities that, like courage, one cannot give to oneself, well... That's how things are, really.

    Indeed Smolin (and I) was referring mostly to theory. About experimentalists, I imagine that a large collaboration may leave little space for creativity (and maybe should, to get things done in time, but I'm not so sure of this). On the other hand there are examples inside INFN of relatively small experiments with interesting results (DAMA(?), 0nubb(?), but thinking also to FERMI, or to the people of NEMO at LNS) where new ideas were important.

    In theory the situation may be worse, I see no compellig new idea in the last 10-20 years - people lost themselves in MSSM benchmarks (theory of 100 parameters!??), in useless leptogenesys scenarios (one number - you cannot fail..!), in extra dimensions (no prediction, and ignoring fundamental issues), in mass textures (and flavour remains a mistery)... Yes, all technically outstanding people. Technically.


    In Cagliari the exam went unattended.