Rodolfo Zich, rector of Turin Polytechnic, has accused Italian private industry of investing too little in scientific research.
"Private investment in Italy is weak," he said at the inauguration of the polytechnic's academic year, at which Italian prime minister Giuliano Amato was present.
Professor Zich, who is a professor of engineering and a former president of the Italian Rectors' Conference, said that private companies invest only 0.45 per cent of gross national product, compared with the 0.7 per cent invested by the public sector.
"Compared with the rest of Europe, Italy has 30 per cent fewer researchers. We have to move quickly: in order to grow we must attract new resources," he said.
Professor Zich said that there are positive exceptions, such as his own university and its relations with private industry in Turin, home of Italy's car industry, and the Piedmont region generally. He gave the examples of recent accords with Fiat, BMW, Pininfarina, Ferrari, Piaggio, Alenia, Siemens, Motorola, IBM, Digital, state broadcaster RAI and Microsoft.
These and other collaborations, he said, have increased the polytechnic's spending on research from €6.8 million (£4.2 million) in 1990 and €7.3 million in 1995 to €23 million in 2000, an increase of 250 per cent in ten years.
His words touched a raw nerve. As the ministry for universities and scientific research has frequently underlined, there is a tendency for Italian private companies to buy technology from abroad rather than develop it themselves or initiate collaborations with Italian universities and research institutions.
Although in many cases this approach may be viable in the short term, the long-term result is the impoverishment of Italian research and a brain drain as the country's best scientists are lured away to work abroad.
As a result, fewer patents are registered in Italy than in most major European countries and, bar a few specific sectors, Italian research is losing ground compared with other industrialised nations.
As a ministry official pointed out, while state spending on research is more or less on a par with other European countries, Italy's private sector invests less than in the rest of Europe. Consequently, Italy invests only a little more than 1 per cent of its GNP in research, compared with about 2 per cent in other EU countries.