Italy loses brain gain

January 5, 1996


A programme to lure back scores of eminent Italian scientists who have left Italy to work abroad has failed to meet expectations.

The special law, passed in 1988, established salaries of up to the equivalent of Pounds 80,000 a year and promised lavish laboratory facilities. It aimed to create a scientific "renaissance" by attracting back the numerous Italian scientists overseas, whose numbers include several Nobel laureates. But spending cuts and debatable appointments have gradually deprived the original project of its spirit.

The initial plan was to create 20 "superposts" at the Institute for Nuclear Physics and another 40 in the National Research Council.

But successive budgets left only nine posts available. These were used to bring back from the United States only two Nobel winners, Renato Dulbecco and Rita Levi Montalcini. Both are in their eighties and have not received the facilities for research that they expected. One other world-class researcher, genetics expert Marcello Siniscalco, was also appointed.

The five-year contracts for Levi Montalcini and Siniscalco have now expired, and the only superstar left is Dulbecco, who oversees a cancer research laboratory of the National Research Council.

"This law has been a missed opportunity," said Siniscalco, who has gone back to the United States after spending his time in Italy in a far-flung laboratory on Sardinia and failing to receive the financial resources he had been promised.

"We might have formed a scientific task force capable of competing with the rest of the world. Instead we slipped into the usual Italian vices."

The other posts have gone mostly to retired academic scientists, who can hardly be considered international superstars. One, for example, is a 68-year-old doctor who spent many years in Britain as a hospital consultant. None are well known in the Italian or international scientific community.

What is surprising is that little or no effort has been made to bring back any of the many brilliant Italian researchers now working in the top laboratories in the US and elsewhere.

"What we must realise," commented a director of research at the Superior Health Institute, "is that worthwhile research needs an environment, a general atmosphere made up of resources and people, a culture of research which can only develop over decades. It is not enough to offer a good salary; the best Italian brains are already earning good salaries in America, in a dynamic context which in Italy simply does not exist.

"Passing a law with high-sounding ambitions is not good enough, just as it is not enough to bring back two Nobel prize winners to breathe new life into a stultified research environment."

The project was the brainchild of Antonio Ruberti, former minister of scientific research. "I believe that to create new laboratories we needed scientists of world rank to run the organisations and to raise a new generation of young researchers. If this project has been badly used, to find jobs for friends, it is hardly my fault," he said.

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