Italian scientists highly valued, but only abroad

“There still remains enough researchers to guard research,” was the answer of an undersecretary for education, when questioned on what to do to counter the trend of a large fraction of Italy’s top researchers leaving the country every year. These illuminating words are still vivid in the collective memory of the country’s scientists. As if research was a sentry box to guard and as if the quality of those who leave or stay were irrelevant. This shows how culture, research and education have so far been among the lowest concerns of the Italian ruling class. In recent times, Italy has gone through veritable dark ages due to several factors, which include the world economic crisis but go well beyond it. And these times may not be over yet. Many believe that the recovery will take years if not decades.

Frightening is the number of young jobless people who leave the country to find a ‘proper job’ somewhere else. Italy has become again a country of emigrants. Figures are very conflicting but run in the tens of thousands for the last two decades. Contrary to the past, however, a large fraction of them are highly educated people. Italy today counts the smallest number of researchers within the G7 countries: about 70,000 compared to 155,000 in France and 240,000 in Germany–not to mention the USA with 1,150,000 or Japan 640,000.

The negative aspect, of course, is not that young Italians leave for better positions abroad. But that there is not nearly an equivalent inflow of scientists coming to Italy from other countries. The salaries offered are far from competitive with what they find abroad and this explains also why very few of those who leave return.

Besides, the significant resources invested in the education and training of these researchers do not provide any benefit to the country because the same researchers bring their expertise abroad. Therefore, they do not contribute to generating Italy’s welfare. The actual figure in terms of loss for the Country is very difficult to estimate. But it must be gigantic, given that the full education of a PhD costs at least 300,000 euros and that several thousand researchers leave the country every year. In addition, one of the Italian broadsheets, La Repubblica, recently covered a report by two Italian Foundations, which estimates that in the last 20 years Italy has lost about 4 billion euros in missing patent revenues by expatriated researchers, representing about 35% of our best researchers.

No wonder that Italy’s performance is relatively so poor. The central institute for statistics of Italy, ISTAT, in December 2011 recorded that in 2009 the overall spending of the country in research was only 1.26% of the GDP— roughly half of which from public money. This is much less than the average percentage in R&D spent by the other European partners and this amount has since been subjected to further reduction. In addition, if the overall goal of the EU is for countries to spend at least 3% of their GDP on R&D by the horizon of 2020, Italy’s target remains 1.53%, as for Bulgaria and Latvia. By comparison, Belgium, Germany, Denmark, Spain, France and Portugal aim at 3.00%, Austria at 3.76% while Sweden and Finland at 4%.

As already hinted at, this depressing picture is rooted into an overall rather gloomy perspective. The science literacy PISA indicator, for instance, provides an additionally intriguing view of the country’s educational programs. The general average in scientific literacy itself is quite unsatisfactory. But a disaggregated analysis shows an additional strong cause for concern since only the North of Italy is at the European level or above, whereas the other regions are behind.

Despite all of these considerations, the fact remains that Italian researchers fare very favourably on the international market. This trend, in itself, represents a positive evaluation of our research. We now need the ruling political class to realise how important research is for the welfare and the economy of our country. This notion is gaining international support and the hope is that Italy will go along following the indications that come from the most advanced sectors of society. Learning should be a must and more so in times of crisis.

Enrico Predazzi

Emeritus Professor of Theoretical Physics and Chairman of the Center Agorà Scienza – The University of Torino, Italy

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