Anger at plan for Italy's own MIT

November 21, 2003

The Italian government's plans to spend €100 million (£70 million) a year on a new national research institute while cutting resources for universities and existing research institutions have divided the country's scientific community.

The creation of the Italian Institute of Technology (IIT), which will probably be sited in Genoa, has divided scientists, academics and politicians into two camps. Supporters see it as a new dawn in Italian research. They say an Italian equivalent of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology offers an opportunity to break with the past, with a research system notorious for bureaucratic rigidity, lack of meritocracy and meagre concrete results.

Opponents, led by the university rectors' conference, accuse the Berlusconi government of starving universities and established institutions such as the National Research Council (CNR), where centres of excellence already exist, while promoting research that is primarily geared to industrial needs and outside the control of Italy's traditional research establishment. They claim that €100 million - which is insufficient to finance the ambitious visions of a new era - would be better spent on existing centres of research.

Tommaso Poggio, a specialist in artificial intelligence neuroscience who has spent the past 30 years abroad, including some time at MIT, sees the IIT as a great opportunity. "It must revolutionise research in Italy, break down bureaucracy and privileges," he said. "We have to admit that the CNR has been a failure and should be eliminated."

But Alfonso Fuggetta, director of the Cefriel IT research institute in Milan, is sceptical. "In Italy, there are already too many research institutes and funding is scattered. Why not bet on the centres of excellence that already exist?" he said.

Both camps agree that final judgement will depend on how the project is implemented.

· At Rome's La Sapienza University, 1,500 researchers gathered in the engineering department and, holding passports aloft, threatened to go abroad unless they get a job. They claimed to represent researchers who, after a degree and doctorate, have been formally accepted for full-time jobs in universities and institutes, but have never begun working because of a government freeze on new jobs.

Some have been waiting two years or more, and many are now between 30 and 40 years old or older. The lucky ones survive on short-term contracts at €6 an hour - less than a domestic cleaner - while others are on family support.

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