Italian Space Agency head dismissed

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WASHINGTON — A week after the sudden firing of Roberto Battiston as the head of the Italian Space Agency, the reasons for his ouster remain unclear while a grassroots effort is underway to restore his job.

Battiston, who had been president of the Italian Space Agency, or ASI, since 2014, used social media to announce Nov. 6 that he had been removed from his job by Marco Bussetti, the country’s education, university and research minister. Battiston had been appointed to a second four-year term as president in May.

“Today Minister Bussetti, to my surprise, informed me of my immediate removal as President of the Italian Space Agency,” Battiston tweeted in Italian and English. “Thanks [to] the thousands who shared four fantastic years of Space for Italy.”

Battiston suggested that it was a “spoil system,” or patronage, that led Bussetti to remove him from his job. Bussetti became minister in June with the rest of the country’s new government, after previously working as a teacher and administrator.

Sources told the Italian news agency ANSA that the ministry removed Battiston from his post “to make a formal verification on the procedures by which he was appointed” to his second term. Neither the ministry nor ASI have formally commented on Battiston’s firing, although ASI did post a video where Battiston offered farewell remarks to ASI staff.

Battiston’s removal surprised many outside Italy. “Very sorry that [Battiston] is leaving [ASI], high appreciation for his work,” tweeted Jan Woerner, director general of the European Space Agency.

“Thank you for your years of service,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science at NASA. “With your leadership at [ASI] we’ve collaborated on missions ranging from studying Earth & close neighbors to the distant universe. Ad astra!”

Battiston’s dismissal prompted the creation of a petition on Change.org, seeking either to restore Battiston to his post or take other steps to reduce the impact of his departure. The petition argued that it was unlikely the government could find someone better prepared to lead the agency than Battiston.

Battiston acknowledged the petition Nov. 10, which has since exceeded 15,000 signatures. “I do not think I know Stefano Piccin,” the person who created the petition, “but I thank him and all the others for this action in support for civil rights and democracy.”