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What Berlusconi’s leaving means for Italian research

The situation in Italy is frantic and uncertain. International stocks markets are holding their breath with the hope that Berlusconi’s resignation might break the debt impasse. Meanwhile politicians desperately try to make sense of it all, and figure out how to respond to the passing of a political giant. The world looks at Italy.

But outside the media spotlight researchers wonder what the news might imply for Italian research and academia.

Chronic lack of money and nepotism are well known, endemic problems of Italian research. The amount of public money invested in the Italian research and development sector represents 1.1% of the gross domestic product (GDP), a very low rate compared to the country’s neighbours Germany, France and Switzerland.

Last year at last a new university reform was approved, but not before a long-debated process. The focus of the reform was the academic personnel selection process. In fact this was the only education reform fully implemented by Berlusconi’s government.

“It was a generally positive law and, albeit slowly, its application should improve the framework,” sass Enrico Decleva, rector of the University of Milan. “However, funds are still by far too scarce and the system stands only because most of the fundings are in stand by.”

In fact, Italian researchers are still very skeptical about the possibility to set up a tenure track system as good as the Anglo-Saxon model where there is a dynamic turnover of people based on excellence and merit.

“Our (private) institute follows the tenure track system with success and this should be transferred into the public as well” says Marco Foiani, Scientific Director of the FIRC Institute of Molecular Oncology Foundation in Milan. “The age-old problem of recruitment, which continues to be based on patronage, must be solved.”

Nowadays, nonprofit bodies such as AIRC (Italian Association for Cancer Research) and Telethon, and of course the EU’s Framework 7, seem to be the only reliable funding sources for researchers in Italy.

“There are no public funds for research, basically,” comments Silvia Onesti, head of the Structural Biology Laboratory at the Elettra synchrotron facility, Trieste.

The truth is that the only available public funds are the so-called Italian Research Project of National Interest (PRIN Progetti di ricerca di interesse nazionale). In 2009 this was worth a meagre €106 million. But funding from this institute is nearly always late and in constant fluctuation.

“In April 2010, the PRIN 2009 was announced and the results went public only a few months ago, in the middle of 2011! Needless to say, that there is no mention trace of PRIN 2010 and PRIN 2011,” says Onesti.

Italian governments, of whatever political side, have always considered research and higher education the last wheel of the train, lacking consciousness that research is an instrumental long-term investment for both economic and social development.

If they could look into the future of Italy’s political world, Italian researchers would draft a letter for help today: Dear next Government, be aware of the economic and social benefits of scientific research!

Marta Paterlini is a freelance journalist based in Sweden.