Italy’s woeful record on attracting international researchers will be improved only once it begins to offer higher salaries to top-rated academics, scholars have said.
That is the conclusion of three Rome-based researchers who found that only 1 per cent of Italy’s 35,000-strong scientific faculty, about 350 in total, were foreign-born, of whom roughly half come from France, Germany or Spain.
In the UK, about 30 per cent of academic staff are from overseas, with some 5,940 Italian scholars working in the sector. In the US, about one in three professors at elite universities earned their undergraduate degree abroad, which rose to about half for maths professors, according to a study published last year.
In a paper published in the journal Higher Education, Giovanni Abramo, Ciriaco Andrea D’Angelo and Flavia Di Costa analysed the citation records of Italy’s 350 foreign tenure-track science professors to determine their research quality.
The trio found that the performance of foreign-born professors was marginally better on average than their Italian equivalents, but many of these foreign-born professors had significantly worse records.
In psychology, three of the 30 foreign-born professors identified had not been published and the work of a further two had never been cited, the study says.
By contrast, hundreds of Italian scholars working outside their home country boasted impressive research records, the paper states.
The authors explain that “brain drain” (fuga dei cervelli) had become an integral part of Italy’s popular lexicon, but that it “would raise less outrage if it were in some way accompanied by demonstration of a compensating phenomenon of similar scope: of flows in the opposite incoming direction, meaning brain gain”.
Radical overhaul of Italy’s universities – none of which feature in the top 150 of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings – is necessary, the trio argue, comprising greater institutional autonomy and competitive funding mechanisms backed up by robust evaluation processes.
Professor Abramo, technological research director at the National Research Council of Italy’s Institute for System Analysis and Computer Science, told THE that a “further and still more courageous step for Italy would be to link the professors’ actual salaries to the quality of their teaching and research”, which are currently unrelated to excellence in either research or teaching.