The British Council is targeting young talent with bright ideas for joint-project funding, writes Paul Bompard
Young British and Italian scientists who collaborate on research could soon be tapping into a new funding source as the British Council in Italy redefines its role.
A group of top British scientists and funding experts, led by Sir Graeme Davies, principal of Glasgow University and former chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, has recently returned from a fact-finding mission to Italy on behalf of the British Council.
In Italy, the council is seeking to redefine its role in supporting joint-research projects, both in view of its own vision of what its role should be, and in the changing scenario of Italian higher education and research.
Professor Davies's team included experts from the British research councils. "We have visited widely in Italy, including a number of universities and research institutes in Rome, Milan, Bologna and Turin," Professor Davies said.
"The idea is to try and define the role that the BC could play in supporting joint-research projects between British and Italian researchers, bearing in mind that there are already important sources of support at a national and a European level. We have tried to visualise where the BC can fit in and play a decisive role.
"The feeling we have is that the BC should be targeting the younger researchers, those on the first rung of the academic ladder in scientific research, who present worthy projects in collaboration with young researchers in the United Kingdom. The idea is that the BC can provide a first step of small-scale funding, to be used primarily for travel and communications for the researchers involved. We believe this could well provide a first 'push' of support that will then enable some of these young researchers subsequently to tap other sources of support from existing European channels."
He added: "One possible obstacle to the kind of collaboration we had in mind when we arrived was that from what we knew of the Italian university and research system, it appeared to be rigidly centralised, very different from, and less flexible than, that in the UK.
"However, from talking to people here in Italy we have the impression that things are changing significantly and that the ongoing programme of reforms will result in very radical changes as each university acquires a much greater degree of autonomy and independence.
"In this context of new-found autonomy, we also have the feeling that the BC could play an important role in organising workshops and seminars on the subject of managing higher education and research, on systems for the evaluation of research projects and so on. The UK is a step or two ahead of Italy in this field and we have gained the impression that the Italians would be eager to acquire know-how from us.
"Italy is the first country in which there has been a visit of this kind, and there is no reason why our findings here, and possible future experiences, should not be of use in developing similar projects with other European countries."
Sharon Memis, director for science and public affairs at the British Council in Italy, added: "We see the role of the British Council as that of sowing seeds of collaboration, which will develop as the researchers involved progress in their careers, creating lasting links between individuals, departments and research institutes."
On Italian research in general, Professor Davies said: "A great deal of attention and resources are applied to physics, which is traditionally a field in which Italy is a world leader. But perhaps insufficient attention is given to other fields. There is a natural tendency in all countries, of course, to fuel the area of research that already has a strong international reputation."