Italian taxpayers unable to choose between church and state may be given a third option when they complete their tax returns.
Existing tax law allows them to allocate 0.8 per cent of their direct tax bill to religious organisations, most of which goes to the Roman Catholic Church.
In recent years this has amounted to €900 million-plus (£617 million) for the church - more than 80 per cent of the total - for the support of the clergy. Each year the Catholic Church runs an advertising campaign on television and in the press to maintain this trend.
But a pressure group of 30-odd eminent researchers, Gruppo 2003, wants taxpayers to be able to allocate the sum to scientific research. They believe the proceeds could help stem the dramatic decline in Italian research.
Members of Gruppo 2003 work in fields from astronomy and physics to chemistry, pharmaceutics, mathematics and medicine. All are listed among the world's "most quoted" scientists by Philadelphia's Institute for Scientific Information.
Astrophysicist Tommaso Maccacaro said: "We would like to see an independent research agency that assigns funds on the basis of the results that individual projects are producing."
The chances of their campaign succeeding appear slim. Alessandro Cecchi Paone, a journalist who specialises in science and research, said: "The Conservative Government will never offer the option of giving 0.8 per cent to research, because the Catholics don't want it, and it is extremely unlikely that a Government of the centre-left, if elected in 2006, would behave differently. The Catholic Church is very powerful among the Right and the Left."
Anxiety over the health of Italian research coincides with a wave of scandals involving the buying and selling of exam passes and degrees for cash.
Last week an investigation implicated academics at Rome's La Sapienza and La Terza universities in the sale of everything from passes in individual exams to a degree in dentistry for an alleged €200,000.
Police are investigating 99 people, including 15 professors and a number of university administrative staff, and have carried out 41 searches in homes, offices and dental surgeries in 19 cities.
Investigators say the scam used two private firms in Turin and Rome to recruit students who took bogus exams run by professors paid up to E1,000 a month. Students received false dentistry degrees from a Hungarian university.
During the investigation period, Hungary was not in the European Union, but the organisation counted on the degrees being recognised as soon as it joined. Police have discovered about 60 dentists who they believe are working with false degrees from a Hungarian university.
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