Italy confronts funding furore

November 5, 1999

In our focus on Italian research, Paul Bompard reports on new efforts to shake up an unequal and underfunded system. Below, he looks at the agonies and the ecstasies of medical researchers

According to Italy's Ministry for Universities and Scientific and Technological Research, an epoch-making revolution is about to sweep through Italian research.

New legislation and directives, new evaluation and planning committees, new incentives for private-sector resources and a reform of research institutes should combine to produce a radical modernisation and rationalisation of the entire research system.

But just how effective this revolution will prove still remains to be seen, given the strong resistance to change in Italy in general, and in Italy's academic establishment in particular.

The key issue, of course, is funding, both the scarcity with it and the way the available resources are distributed. Italy spends less on research than other countries.

The official figure is 1.1 per cent of gross national product, compared to a European average of about 2 per cent, and figures of about 3 per cent in countries such as France, Germany and the United Kingdom with which Italy is economically and industrially on a par.

Although each country has its own way of working out these percentages, it should be noted that in Italy the 1.1 per cent includes half of the money paid in salaries to university staff, on the shaky assumption that academics spend as much time on research as they do on teaching.

Many do not, although some people employed by the state as professori, are in fact working in research institutes or on research projects and not teaching.

Until now, the general practice in Italy has been to sprinkle funds thinly everywhere. This was partly because it is extremely difficult to judge fairly and objectively which fields of inquiry are worthy and which are not.

But, more importantly, a succession of weak coalition governments have shied away from radical measures that would have rocked the academic boat and alienated an academic establishment that, directly or indirectly, carries many votes and is a powerful lobby closely connected with the political establishment.

In recent governments almost half the ministries have been entrusted to people with some kind of university post. Italy has never had the kind of secure and powerful government majority that allowed radical reforms in research funding to be carried out in the UK in the 1980s.

Nevertheless, over the past few years the avowed policy of the education ministry, MURST has been to reduce the sprinkling of funds and try to concentrate money in specific areas and on the most worthy projects.

This has prompted protests, either from those who suggest that the money is going to projects run by researchers with connections to coalition parties, or from research sectors, in particular the humanities, that claim that technocratic obsession is starving fields that are just as important as science and technology to the well-being and development of Italian society.

Moreover, everyone who is not a physicist, and even some physicists, complain that pure physics research gets the lion's share of resources, with not enough left over for other areas such as medical research.

There are solid grounds for these complaints, but there is also justification for the lavish support of physics. Italy's tradition in physics is based in figures such as Nobel prizewinner Enrico Fermi. In the postwar period the threads were gradually picked up again and now Italian research in physics is on a par with, and in some cases ahead of, other industrialised countries.

Governments and state institutions have tended to favour physics with financial support and facilities, because it was the one field in which Italy could excel and provide international prestige for Italian research.

A good example is the mammoth laboratory built in the 1980s under the Gran Sasso mountain of central Italy. It consists of a system of tunnels and vast caverns dug out of the solid rock that was staggeringly costly to build and is viciously expensive to run. It is used to observe neutrinos, the only type of particles that can travel through 1400m of solid rock.

Other examples are the new DAFNE high-

intensity synchrotron accelerator in Frascati, near Rome, and the new plant being built near Pisa to monitor gravitational waves. Both are costly, cutting-edge research structures and the gravitational wave device has little probable economic spin-off.

Meanwhile, researchers in other fields, including medicine, grumble that they are chronically short of personnel. Most are staffed by graduate students on scholarships who after a time tend to accept more solid jobs abroad. They are also short of the essential supplies necessary for their experiments.

In the humanities, research is hampered not only by lack of funding, but also by an academic hierarchy that many describe as feudal. Powerful academic barons call the shots and meritocracy and support for new ideas or for imaginative young researchers are rare.

The fact that academic careers are rigidly regulated in terms of seniority and promotions, and that nobody can be sacked, disciplined or transferred, should theoretically provide freedom from career pressure and encourage untrammelled research.

In practice it stultifies research by not rewarding success, and by not penalising failure or lack of research. Many academics privately complain that those who are overly active and enterprising tend to become unpopular, although there are excellent individual humanities researchers in fields such as archaeology and art history, but the general feeling is that the academic environment is often less than encouraging.

The last two MURST ministers, Luigi Berlinguer from 1996 to 1998 and Ortensio Zecchino since then, have both tried to set in motion a radical reform of the nation's research system.

There have been special commissions to evaluate research and map out national policy, incentives to get private companies involved in research projects, and modernisation of key institutions such as the National Research Council, which was once the vibrant nerve-centre of Italian research but over the decades became a self-sustaining bureaucratic behemoth.

These reforms are already either operating or should become effective over the next few months and the results are expected to emerge over the next couple of years.

But for these reforms to be effective there will need to be some change in the mentality of hundreds of thousands of bureaucrats, administrators, academics and researchers who are the individual cogs and wheels in the vast machinery of research and who define the context in which research is carried out.

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