Pervasive meritocracy, a must for Italian research

Ilaria Capua, recently elected Member of the Italian Parliament, under the umbrella of the Civic Choice movement, talks to the Euroscientist about the kind of reforms that are needed to ensure a sustainable future to Italian research. Prior to her appointment, she has had a successful career as a prominent virologist involved, in particular, in research in H5N1. She is the Director of the division  of comparative biomedical sciences  at the Experimental Institute for the Prevention of Animal Diseases (Instituto Zooprofilattico Sperimentale delle Venezie), Padua, as well as the Director of the  International  reference laboratory for animal influenza of the OIE Collaborating Centre for Diseases at the Human–Animal Interface.

What drove your engagement outside the practice of research into a more political role?

The drop that spilled the glass, for me, was last November, when a project to relocate our laboratory did not materialise. We had been planning to expand in a new facility and due to difficulties at the local, regional and central level parties involved failed to reach an agreement on an offer of generous laboratory space within a newly built research facility made available by the Regional Government.

That was the trigger. The relocation did not happen. I decided it was time for a change. I was thinking about going abroad for at least one year, although it could have been longer. It all happened over the Christmas holidays, I was about to contact foreign institutes and colleagues  that may have required my expertise in virology, when Mario Monti phoned me. I did not have any prior connection to politics and had never met him. The reason I said yes to Monti is that he wanted someone with knowledge of science, international visibility and  connections in the  scientific arena. Who better than a scientist would  be able to identify the bottlenecks in research and make suggestions to a new formed government?

What are the main hindrances to do research in Italy?

It is very difficult to maintain a competitive group in the Italian research environment. In more competitive countries there are some non-written rules on how to manage your research group. These unwritten rules include the implementation of meritocracy and the possibility to react  rapidly to scientific challenges.

Italy has never invested a lot in research, and competitive research has only been recently introduced in the system. In addition, because of the way the system has developed, there is a lot of bureaucracy and hurdles. To give you an example, it is very difficult to find English speaking staff for administrative tasks among the civil servants eligible to work in research support, and it is incredibly difficult to hire foreign scientists.

Which are the most urgent areas where change is required?

What needs to change as a matter of priority is a transversal change in the whole research system. We need to implement policy and investment based on merit in research. This would involve making it systematic for grant attribution to be meritocratic, as currently only some grants follow that rule. But this approach would also apply to other aspects of the research system, such as scientists’ recruitment. To do so, Italians don’t need to invent anything. They can copy what is being done in other countries, particularly in Northern Europe, in countries such as Scandinavian countries, the UK, Germany and the Netherlands etc. One of the drawbacks with the current system is that, for example, directors of some scientific institutes do not necessarily have a research background; they are mainly administrators.

Another important mission is to address the gender imbalance in science. This is an issue, particularly in Southern European countries such as Italy. We should set up a system to allow women scientists to express their talent at best.  This means that the way research is organised and the hierarchy should facilitate gender balance. But this also means that Southern European women should be prepared to a stimulating but demanding life.

What would be the role of EU funding in reforming the Italian research system?

I think that, until now, EU funds have been an enormous opportunity for Italian scientists. My own group has benefited from such funds. Beside the financial support it brings, such funding is key because it helps establish connections and network with other laboratories and scientists in the same field. This is a positive step towards establishing a real critical mass of scientists in Europe.
There is an imbalance between what the country provides to the EU in terms of research funds and what it is able to obtain through funded projects, so Italy should become more efficient as EU research funds represent a very important opportunity for the country. We hope that with the renewed government Italy will enact reforms towards competitiveness and internationalisation, which are essential to become a main player in the international research arena.


Interview by Sabine Louët.


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