Italy’s Covid research boost ‘must now be backed by investment’

Data show that Italy’s misfortune to suffer early in pandemic was a benefit for research but it could be short-lived

January 11, 2021
A healthcare worker wearing a protective suit walks through the Quartieri Spagnoli (Spanish Quarters) to screen people for coronavirus (Covid-19) during the pandemic. Italy
Source: Getty
Seminal: Italy produced some of the most important early research into Covid

Science investment in Italy will need to be massively ramped up if the country wants to take full advantage of the way it has plugged into international research networks during the Covid-19 crisis, experts have said.

As the initial European epicentre of the outbreak, Italy produced some of the most important early public health research into the disease, helping scientists further afield gain a handle on some of its key characteristics and effects.

Examples include the mass testing of residents in the small northern town of Vo’ that was among some of the earliest evidence of how a large proportion of people with the virus can be asymptomatic.

In its annual “scorecard” on research performance in the G20, Web of Science owner Clarivate’s Institute of Scientific Information highlighted how Italy had made a “notable” contribution to Covid research in some areas.

For instance, its scientists have appeared on more than one in 10 Covid-related papers in research fields linked to keeping clinicians safe, the health implications of the disease and its links to heart problems and diabetes.

Jonathan Adams, chief scientist at the ISI, said that the way Covid spread made Italy a “focus” for international research networks keen to learn quickly about the illness, something that should pay dividends for the country's research system in the future.

Italian researchers in certain areas “are going to end up getting connected to research groups they may have known before but may not have necessarily worked with before”, he said.

However, Professor Adams added that the “big boost” that should result for Italian research could also depend on whether proper investment was ploughed into a system that had been poorly funded in recent years.

“Italy has underinvested in its research base quite badly,” he said, pointing to figures from the G20 report that show its research productivity was much higher than the global average, something that could be explained by its relatively low number of researchers and investment.

“The investment needs to be ramped up and successive Italian governments have really been very weak on this,” he said.

Caroline Wagner, Wolf chair in international affairs at Ohio State University, who has co-authored research on international collaboration patterns in Covid research, said that it had been “very interesting” how Italy’s coronavirus work had grown more international over time.

But she too pointed to future investment as being key.

“Will Italy be more attractive as a partner in the future? It depends upon funding patterns,” she said, not just in Italy but further afield, because there was a risk that money was only flowing into certain areas because of the pandemic.

“Will we increase funding to viruses, patient care and public health? If not, I expect that the links with Italy will become latent, just ready to be tapped at the next viral event,” Professor Wagner said.

Alberto Baccini, a professor at the University of Siena who has questioned whether a rise in self-citation in Italy has boosted its impact metrics in the past few years and masked the effect of underinvestment, also hoped that Covid would mark a turning point.

“Italian research has suffered from a shortage of funding and shortage of personnel,” he said, pointing to the “ridiculous” low level of research expenditure as a percentage of gross domestic product compared with other nations.

“We hope that the lesson from Covid-19 will [be to] push Italian governments to bring resources for research to a stable level at least comparable to other European countries,” Professor Baccini added.

US productivity gap widens as it loses ground in key science areas 

The US is falling behind so dramatically in the amount of research it is producing in some scientific areas that it runs the “real risk” of its “pre-eminence” in research being permanently damaged.

That was the warning issued after an annual scorecard report on scientific performance in the G20 highlighted how the country’s research productivity is falling behind the global average.

According to the report, from Clarivate’s Institute for Scientific Information, the number of papers indexed in the Web of Science that are produced per million dollars spent on research had reached about 1.5 for the world in 2018, but the US was heading towards 0.6. Output per scientist in the US remained more constant at 0.3 papers per full-time equivalent researcher but is also behind the world average, with the gap growing.

Jonathan Adams, chief scientist at the ISI, said that, in part, the data “inevitably” reflected the fact that the US had been “top of the pile” for so long “that the only direction of movement compared with the rest of the world is going to be down”.

But he also warned that a “combination” of problems for the US, including relying on importing research talent rather than improving its own “patchy” scientific education system and a concentration of funding on medical and life sciences, also had to be considered.

Professor Adams said that in some physical science disciplines such as telecommunications and energy, China produced four times as much Web of Science-indexed research as the US in 2018.

He said that while federal agencies had seemingly recognised the problem and wanted more focus on such areas, if there was not a rapid shift towards financially supporting these fields then the US would continue to lose ground overall.

“That is the real risk here. The extent to which it has fallen behind in volume terms in those areas is really quite marked,” he said.

“The combination of these things does point to quite a threat to the pre-eminence of US research and certainly to their capacity to deliver in those areas that the White House has focused on but hasn’t really supported and backed.”

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