Research chief Luciano Criscuoli tells Paul Bompard the government is encouraging the private sector to help fund more research projects
After almost 20 years at the Ministry for Universities and Scientific and Technological Research, Luciano Criscuoli recently became director for research. He is confident that the many reforms under way in Italy's research system will produce a radical modernisation and a marked increase in results within a couple of years.
"We are re-designing the national system of research," explained Mr Criscuoli. "It is a reform of great moment, a process of modernisation that will affect the future of the nation."
A basic weakness that he believes must be tackled is the low level of spending, 1.1 per cent of gross domestic product compared with a European average about 2 per cent and about 3 per cent in the richer countries.
"This figure, about L24,000 billion (Pounds 8 billion), includes 60 per cent from public sources and 40 per cent from the private sector. In public spending we are not that far behind the European average. The real problem lies with private enterprise, which spends much less on research than the European average.
"There is a lack of a research culture in many private companies. Partly, this is because Italy's economy is dominated by small and medium-sized firms, which often do not have the means for full-scale research. So they tend to buy technology from abroad. This deprives Italian research of resources and weighs on the balance of payments. This is not tolerable in a world in which constant research and innovation is necessary to conquer and hold sectors of the market."
Another problem Mr Criscuoli sees is "the almost total lack of integration between the various research networks - the universities, the large and small state institutes and private enterprise".
He said: "What happens all too often is that the state institutes and universities carry out research that produces no spin-off in innovation. Moreover, in the past almost all the state budget for the institutes has gone to paying salaries and overheads, so there is very little to be focused on specific projects.
"We have been radically reviewing the role of the state research institutes. The National Research Council, for instance, was recently reformed. Since then the proportion of its budget spent on salaries has dropped from about 95 per cent to about 70 per cent."
Mr Criscuoli believes that the new-found autonomy of universities will encourage them to launch research partnerships with local companies.
"This will, on the one hand, introduce a culture of research in private firms, and on the other, help support university research, for which the resources available from the state are simply no longer sufficient. On average, less than 3 per cent of university budgets are covered by commissions from the private sector. This must change, as must the tendency in many universities for research to be closed in on itself, with little regard to what is happening in the outside world."
Mr Criscuoli feels that the state must give the private sector incentives to finance research. "The current reform includes tax rebates for firms that invest in research, and the possibility of exchanges of personnel between private industry and public research."
A company will be able, for instance, to "borrow" university and research institute scientists for a time at almost no cost. The state will reimburse the university or institute for the temporary loss of the person, who will introduce know-how and research methods into the company.
"At the same time, small and medium firms will be able to employ graduate students and researchers on two-year contracts with substantial financial incentives from the state. Therefore the company can choose the type of PhD student they need," said Mr Criscuoli.
"Another problem we are tackling is that of the patents produced in universities or institutes, many of which simply end up in a drawer. We will train people, a blend of scientist and entrepreneur, with the specific job of finding practical uses for new patents and technologies. We will also provide financial backing for researchers who, on the basis of a new discovery or development, want to set themselves up in business. And through the banks we are planning strategies to encourage the growth of venture capital," he added.
A reform of national research planning as a whole is under way. "In the past we did have three-year plans, but there was never any real, rational programming of research," said Mr Criscuoli. "We have now created two new bodies, made up of small groups of Italy's most eminent scientists and academics: the committee of experts for research policy and the guidance committee for research evaluation (CEPR and CIVR). They will work together, linked by a secretariat, and provide a planning loop - investment, evaluation, planning, investment, evaluation, planning and so on - for the coming years. They will make sure that resources go where they produce results."
Numerous and radical though these reforms are, there will not, according to Criscuoli, be a sudden revolution in the Italian research scenario. "The change will be gradual. The state institutes are now being reorganised.
"The decrees regarding incentives should be approved by the end of the year, and their effects will be felt almost immediately. While the national research programme, as developed by the CEPR and CIVR, has the deadline of March 2000 to begin operating. I believe that in two years we will be able to verify the results."