Return of the native

November 25, 1994

Rita Levi Montalcini lives in a top-floor apartment in Rome, five minutes walk from the university and the National Research Council. The grande dame of Italian scientific research is protected from city noise by a triple barrier of vegetation: a park surrounding her building, a terrace packed with greenery, and a large drawing room with potted plants on every free scrap of floor space.

After 18 years in America, where she did most of the research that culminated in the identification of the nerve growth factor and earned her the 1986 Nobel prize for medicine, and 12 years commuting between Italy and the United States, Professor Levi Montalcini returned permanently to Italy with the intention of continuing her research. But she found the politics of research were not as straightforward as they were across the Atlantic, and that many of the most brilliant young researchers were forced to seek employment abroad.

She explained: "I have a research group in the institute of neurobiology of the NRC. It is made up of young graduates, most of them extremely bright, who have to live on grants from one year to the next." Each year some leave Italy to accept offers from foreign universities and laboratories.

"There are few jobs in the state's institutions, and Italy still suffers from a system that does not take into consideration the merit of the individual researcher. This is particularly true in the universities, which are controlled by professors known as baroni who give privileges to those close to them rather than other excellently qualified students."

In the feudal world of Italian universities these baroni are powerful professors, usually the disciples of a previous generation of barons, often with good political or family connections. Each rules over one section of the overall system. The commissions that select new people are made up of groups of baroni, who generally agree among themselves to share out the available jobs among their own proteges. For example, a commission of four professors that has to fill eight jobs will take on two young graduates suggested by each baron.

This means that loyalty and belonging to a "clan" are more important in a career than any academic merit. It is accepted that most baroni are mediocre academics and favour young academics who are obedient, loyal and will not rock the boat. Most are also happy to help each other further the career of a relative or friend. "It is difficult to try and change a long-standing system," said Professor Levi Montalcini.

Often the most brilliant young researchers receive offers to work in foreign universities. Faced with the prospect of entering the Italian system and having to pay homage to a baron for years or decades, many decide to go abroad. "People who live and work in Italy think that this system is normal," marvels Professor Levi Montalcini, "But in 30 years in America I never once saw anyone get a job because they were a member of a political party or they were somebody's son or nephew."

Italy's best known Nobel prize-winner remembers that not long ago there was a more dynamic, more positive atmosphere in the world of Italian research. "The 1950s and 1960s were a very productive time for Italy as a whole," she recalled, "the country was blossoming after the war, there was optimism and belief in the future.

In research, as in other fields, Italy was earning itself a deserved international reputation. Unhappily that all ended with the 1968 student and political turmoils. They wanted greater freedom and democracy, ironically they obtained a levelling of standards downwards, and the old baroni took the opportunity to renew their grip on the universities and on research.

"I'll give you an example. Adriano Buzzati Traverso was a very brilliant scientist who in 1962, with the support of various Italian and European agencies, opened an international laboratory for genetics and biophysics in Naples. The LIGB, as it was known, for a few years was an international centre of research, with some of the best young Italian biologists and offering hospitality for a few months each year to foreign researchers, among them pioneers of molecular biology like Monod, Spiegelman, Crick and Luria.

"The LIGB was resented by the conservative university baroni because it escaped their system of power. After only a few years they found an unwitting ally in the students of the far left who attacked it as a temple of elitism and academic aristocracy. After 1968 the LIGB, opposed on all sides and in every way, gradually became a shadow of its former dynamic self.

"So what hope is there for the future of Italian scientific research? In the state-controlled research institutions the standards are incredibly patchy. You will find in positions of similar importance people who are mediocre and a few others who are outstanding. Where perhaps there is hope is in private research, promoted and funded by pharmaceutical firms in particular. I know of several private laboratories in Italy where excellent research is taking place.

"As far as the NRC is concerned, there are efforts for renovation and greater efficiency, such as offering prestigious positions to major Italian scientists working abroad, to encourage them to return to Italy. Beyond that, and although I am sure there is a great deal of good will, I have seen no concrete signs of radical change."

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