THE ITALIAN government has earmarked 850 billion lire (Pounds 300 million) for scientific research over the next three years.
The funds have been assigned to 29 "targets" for applied research involving joint efforts between universities and public and private companies. Each of the 29 will receive between five and 70 billion lire, and will form the hub of a network of several individual research projects that will focus on specific aspects of the main "target".
The government decision follows new guidelines for higher education planning and research financing announced at the end of August, which were the first of a new series of three-year plans. A key point was that major research projects would receive money from the state only if the university also obtained money of its own, mainly from industry.
Both Romano Prodi, the Italian prime minister, and Luigi Berlinguer, the university and research minister, have long insisted that greater investments in research and in higher education are the keys to ensuring Italy's economic development.
The university ministry says the funds will be distributed taking into account the validity of the projects, but also the needs of economically depressed areas, in particular the south of Italy.
The funds have already been divided among fields such as multimedia, transport and traffic control, radio astronomy, molecular genetics, bio-medicine, marine environment and eco-compatible technologies.
The ministry will choose among the hundreds of projects that will be submitted by the end of October, and assign the funds before the end of December.
The 29 areas will have a ministry "overseer", who at the end of each year will renew or close down each project.
It is expected that the Pounds 300 million will be boosted by support from the firms involved in the research.
Among the companies that have been accepted as leaders of research networks are Fiat, for development of low-pollution engines and Olivetti, for telecommunications.
; and the American software firm Eds for a system of remote working in a hypothetical "virtual factory".