The Italian pavilion at this year's Universal Exhibition, whose theme was Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life.

The Italian pavilion at this year's Universal Exhibition, whose theme was Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life.

EXPO Milano 2015

Italy plans to turn Expo 2015 site in Milan into a research campus

The site of Expo 2015, this year's science-themed Universal Exhibition in Milan, Italy, may get a second life as an international hot spot for science and technology. The Italian government plans to shell out €150 million annually for 10 years to redevelop the 100-hectare area in the northwestern part of Milan as a research campus that could be home to as many as 1600 researchers. It would focus on genomics, big data, aging, and nutrition.

Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi officially announced plans for the “Human technopole. Italy 2040” during a visit to Milan on Tuesday. "We believe the Expo area must be an area with strong scientific and cultural value. Therefore, we think that the government should do its part," Renzi told a press conference. He invited universities and companies to join the effort.

The Universal Exhibition, whose motto was Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life, closed on 31 October after drawing more than 21 million visitors over 6 months. Many of the Expo's futuristic pavilions will be torn down or relocated within the next 6 months. What to do with the site had been discussed for several months between the city of Milan, the regional government of Lombardia, and the University of Milan (UM).

But the current idea for a science and tech campus was developed by the Italian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Genova, at the request of the Italian government; the Edmund Mach Foundation, a research institute in San Michele all’Adige, helped develop ideas for the fields of food and agriculture. The planners say they took their inspiration from U.S. research and innovation hubs such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Silicon Valley.

“Everything is still at the discussion level,” says Roberto Cingolani, IIT's scientific director, but the basic idea is "an innovative strategy to promote healthy aging and longer life expectancy" that will use cutting-edge technologies and integrate basic and translational science. IIT itself would contribute €100 million; UM could occupy some 200,000 square meters at the site and bring 16,000 students from various other sites to the new campus. (University officials did not respond to a request for comment from ScienceInsider.)

In a country that invests only 1.2% of its gross domestic product in research—far below Europe's target of 3.0%—the announcement was generally welcomed. “It is rather unusual for an Italian government to invest so much in science. This is obviously good news and Milan is undoubtedly the right place to start,” says Marco Foiani, scientific director of IFOM, a molecular oncology institute in Milan. The city is competitive in biomedicine, Foiani says, and hosts several large charities that support biomedical research. The greater Milan area is also home to a quarter of Italy's manufacturing industry.

Foiani says the plan is a unique opportunity for UM to create a modern campus, bring together a large number of disparate scientific institutes, and attract more foreign students. But whether it makes sense for Italy to bet so heavily on the fast-moving field of genomics needs further discussion, he adds.

“We welcome the news with great interest," the president of Italy's National Research Council (CNR), Luigi Nicolais, said in a press release issued yesterday. "The Human Technopole is an ambitious project in scope and duration, but also represents an opening and a sign of great attention towards the entire scientific community." Nicolais added that "CNR is a candidate to join the project in the coming weeks and will propose some ideas for its implementation."

Whereas UM has been heavily involved in the plan, the city's other scientific institutes have not. Yet their collaboration will be necessary, Cingolani says. Alberto Mantovani, scientific director of the Humanitas Research Hospital in Milan, agrees that the effort needs a broader base. The plan might just herald a new era for Italian science, he adds: “I hope this will be only one part of the change in a country that finally decides to invest in research and innovation.”