Hey Minister, stop bragging

A professor blows the whistle on an Italian Minister

By Marleen van Wesel

Roberta D’Alessandro complained about the brain drain in Italy, her native country, on Facebook and then her heart-felt cry made all the papers and news reports. “It was taken as seriously as a scientific paper in Nature.”

(De originele Nederlandstalige versie van dit artikel staat hier)
There is a camera crew from the Italian television in Roberta D’Alessandro’s study, on the Witte Singel. “There’s no one in Italy who hasn’t heard of Leiden in the last few days” exclaims the Professor of Italian. “ , all the other major papers, the news… They all wanted to talk to me, but I refuse to go to Italy. I have to be at lectures tomorrow morning, so they have to come here.”
The cause: a Facebook post by D’Alessandro, on Saturday morning. “Meant for friends, but it was taken as seriously as a scientific paper in Nature.” The content: a complaint against the Italian Minister of Education and Science, Stefania Giannini. “Ministra, don’t keep on bragging about my achievements”, D’Alessandro wrote. “I would never have addressed her as ‘Ministra’ so rudely in an open letter.”
On Friday, the European Research Council (ERC) published a list of 302 researchers who had been awarded an ERC-Consolidator grant. D’Alessandro was one of them, as were 29 other Italian researchers. D’Alessandro explains: “The minister talked about great Italian achievements, but my research isn’t Italian – it’s Dutch. In fact, of those thirty grants for Italians, only thirteen were for researchers who don’t work abroad.”
Her Facebook post has been liked more than 35,000 times and shared more than 15,000 times. “I’ve received 3,500 messages from Italian researchers, from Singapore to Melbourne, who said: brava! Finally someone who dares to say it. Colleagues in Italy were initially less enthusiastic, as if I had insinuated that all the good researchers had left. Of course not. But I couldn’t get a research position in Italy so I left and eventually ended up here.”
In the meantime, Gianni has also responded. “Her reply was full of useless polemics, to everyone’s annoyance. I think that the Dutch Minister, Jet Bussemaker, would have responded more frankly: she’d say that the Dutch results are good but it’s a problem that many researchers leave the country.”
In reality, the opposite applies to the Netherlands: 20 researchers with an ERC grant are but 26 grants were awarded the Netherlands.
“Three guesses as to why”, says D’Alessandro. “The Netherlands has a better infrastructure, a functioning democratic system and a corresponding international image.” D’Alessandro is a member of the , a platform for young, top researchers. “Of course, Minister Bussemaker doesn’t always listen, but we don’t have to worry about saying things and we don’t need to please anyone. We can just be honest.”
Four other Leiden academics were awarded an ERC grant: Eveline Crone, Petra Sijpesteijn, Caroline Waerzeggers and Erik Bähre. A total of EUR 585 million is available for 302 top scientists and consequently another 2,100 other researchers will have work too; in D’Alessandro’s case: another post-doc student, three PhD graduates and an IT expert.
“We will be studying Italian languages that are not Italian for the next five years.” She points to a map of Italy, divided into regions in every colour. “That more or less equals the number of languages that are spoken. Everyone speaks Italian so we can understand each other. These languages are called dialects but actually they are sister languages to Italian, like Frisian is to Dutch. My project focuses on the question: what’s going on in people’s heads when these languages come into contact with other languages? Loan words are a well-known phenomenon, but I’m examining the syntactic structures. The tiny differences between very similar languages, like Neapolitan and Spanish, are interesting. After the Second World War, many Neapolitans emigrated to Argentina, and so on. It would be interesting to find out what they took from Spanish and what they didn’t.”

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