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...