Reengineering Italian research

For many years, we have been witnessing a paradox in Italian research. On the one hand, we have heard the frequent declarations by politicians and institutions on the importance of research and researchers. On the other hand, the same policy makers have been imposing budget cuts and constraints to scientists. The scientific community has thus expressed justified concerns.

Although we know that Italy presents various inefficiencies, we must, however, emphasise that many Italian researchers and institutions are recognised for their research excellence at international level. This represents the positive side of the country that shall be promoted and supported.

We all understand that the crisis is spreading all around Europe and that “there is no money left”. It is therefore more than ever necessary to strengthen quality and synergy of investments in research and innovation. We absolutely need a rational and coordinated approach in the research system: the very same rational approach that Italy has always been lacking.

In particular, we need the national political system to reduce bureaucracy—this does not only apply to the research field! —and to improve certainties in terms of timing and rules within the operational side of research. Currently, research bodies are not able to make medium and long term plans both in terms of funding and personnel, due to the uncertainty of the whole funding and legislation system. This situation determines a condition in which we have to “play it by ear”.

What needs to be done is to give scientists more freedom to perform their research, and facilitate speed in response from research institutions to tackle today’s research challenges, both before and after research evaluation has taken place. We also need public research laboratories collaboration with the private sector to be improved. Moreover, it is key that evaluation, prior to the assignment of funds, be performed in line with international standards by following a rationale based on the recognition of excellence.

Human resources remain a crucial matter that needs to be addressed. Existing legislation creates difficulties, particularly in terms of recruitment for the public research system. Research bodies and universities have extremely narrow limits imposed on the number of researchers they are able to recruit in permanent or temporary positions. Such system is generating a growing distrust among scientists towards the academic system and increasing concern for the future of research in Italy. It is also deeply disappointing for young people as it strongly limits their prospects of professional growth in the field of research and innovation.

We also need to address the long-lasting issues created by the brain-drain phenomenon. The country is now requiring immediate and concrete action to withhold home grown talents and attract scientific expertise from abroad. This is not merely an economic matter. Changes are required to ensure that research quality is maintained as we invest in a broad spectrum of talents to cultivate research dynamism, and transform Italian research into a more internationalised and interdisciplinary activity.

But all is not doom and gloom in the country. Despite inefficiencies in the system, many Italian researchers and institutions are recognised for their research excellence at international level.

There is also some glimmer of hope emerging on the ground. To end on an optimistic note, I would like to share a recent anecdote demonstrating that things can change. My own institute, the National Institute of Oceanography and Experimental Geophysics, based in Trieste, recently managed to attract back to Italy Angelo Camerlenghi, an eminent scientist who spent many years in Barcelona. What is so important about this story is that merit played a fundamental role in his appointment. The Ministry of Research MIUR authorised a so-called ‘direct call’ for his recruitment. It is the very first time that this form of recruitment, which is enshrined in Italian national legislation, has been used. This is a good example which, I hope, will be followed by many other Institutions!

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Maria Cristina Pedicchio
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