Italian scientists rail against cuts

July 7, 1995

Italy's scientific community, including a number of Nobel Prize winners, is outraged by cuts to the already meagre budget for scientific research, and by rumours of further cuts in 1996.

The 1995 budget slashed spending at major institutes like the National Research Council (CNR) and the National Institute of Nuclear Physics by 30 per cent on everything apart from salaries and overheads. Government plans for the 1996 budget include the option of more cuts.

Carlo Rubbia, Nobel winner for physics in 1984 and former director of the European Nuclear Research Centre, is among the most irate and vociferous.

"Italy is no different from other countries," he told the Corriere Della Sera. "Then why should Germany spend 2.5 per cent of its gross domestic product on research, Japan and the United States 3 per cent, and Italy only 1.3 to 1.4 per cent? We cannot consider ourselves so clever that with half the spending we can do what our competitors are doing."

Over the past few years a number of Italian scientists have made important headway in various scientific fields and been rewarded with Nobel Prizes and other marks of international recognition. These successes have been heavily underlined by the Italian media, creating the illusion of a nation in the vanguard of world research.

"Sure, we too have our Nobel winners," points out Antonio Ruberti, former minister for university research and former European Commissioner for training, research and universities, and now professor of systems theory at Rome University. "But all our world-famous scientists, Dulbecco, Rubbia, Levi Montalcini, are people who developed their research abroad." He also points out that Italian university graduates in scientific fields are only 262 per 100,000 young people, compared to 968 in Japan, 675 in Germany and 653 in the US.

"We suffer from a chronic gap between industrial growth and scientific and cultural development," Professor Ruberti said. "And the gap is growing. Apart from the past and possible future cuts to research spending, we must bear in mind that the lira has devalued about 40 per cent against the German mark over the past three years, so our resources in real terms are even smaller than the official government figures indicate.

"Without adequate financing there can be no international co-operation. We must also modernise the system to make the resources more effective. We need, for instance, some kind of authority to evaluate the quality of research along the lines of that operating in the United Kingdom."

Professor Rubbia feels that Italy must reach European levels of spending, despite the general agreement that the available resources are spent badly and inefficiently. "The research institutes must undoubtedly be reformed," he admits. "But not by cutting off their oxygen. Poverty leads to bad spending. Let us begin by investing in research, investing better, and then we can cut away the areas of inefficiency.

"The government should, over a period of ten years, bring research spending up to the European average. Which is the only means of defending employment. Unfortunately the vision of our politicians is limited to a period of a few months or at best a few years."

Renato Dulbecco, Nobel Prize winner for medicine, warns: "We must do everything possible to make the Italian system competitive. Otherwise it will not be a question of co-operating, but of being colonised. Italy has the knowledge and the energy to compete with the rest of the world," Professor Ruberti said. "But without the concrete means all this will be wasted."

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