Fed up with their country's politicians, Italian scientists have launched a national debate about the dire state of their country’s research system. They want the government to reverse years of budget cuts and prevent increasing numbers of researchers moving overseas for work.
On Thursday, several hundred researchers and students gathered at a heated meeting at the Sapienza University of Rome to discuss their plight.
The protests started with a letter published in Nature a few weeks ago by renowned Sapienza physicist Giorgio Parisi, which was co-signed by 69 other researchers. The letter said that Italy "seriously neglects its research base," and urged the European Union to pressure national governments, including Italy's, “into keeping their research funding above subsistence level.”
The letter was accompanied by an online petition, so far signed by more than 50,000 people, arguing that the European Union should require member states to spend at least 3% of gross domestic product on research and development—as stipulated in the Lisbon strategy of 2000—just as it requires them to limit budget deficits. Currently, Italy spends just 1.25% of its GDP on research.
Parisi says the letter and the petition are really aimed at the Italian government rather than the European Union. “I speak with the daughter-in-law so that the mother-in-law understands,” he says, reciting a traditional Italian saying.
Government funding for Italy's universities has fallen by about €1 billion (13%) since 2009, Parisi pointed out at the meeting. Money distributed specifically to support research projects has also diminished. A funding stream known as "research projects of national interest" (PRIN), which is open to scientists from universities and research institutes, will disburse just €92 million this year; France's National Research Agency (ANR), which also funds research projects, has a €1 billion annual budget.
As physicist Arianna Montorsi of the Polytechnic University of Turin in Italy pointed out during the meeting, Italy has relatively few researchers compared to its GDP, which means it's also less successful in obtaining European research grants. As a result, Italy's return on the money it pays to support E.U. research is much lower than for countries such as the United Kingdom and Germany.
The Italian government has created 1000 new research jobs across universities and research institutes in its 2016 budget, but some scientists fear most of the new posts will be awarded to those who have been on temporary contracts for a long time, rather than on the basis of merit.
At Thursday's meeting, several successful researchers told personal stories about the decline of research. Roberto Navigli, a Sapienza computer scientist who has developed software to understand the meaning of text in any language, said he has received “practically zero” funds from the Italian government. Excessive bureaucracy has led two very talented group members to leave, said Navigli, who added that most support for his group of 10 comes from a starting grant from the European Research Council.
“Young researchers in particular have no prospects. Some will go abroad, while others will become demoralized," said Francesco Ricci, a chemist at the University of Rome Tor Vergata, whose department of about 40 has been awarded just one new research post the last 5 years, while six people have retired. “It is a dramatic situation,” Ricci said. Fabiola Gianotti, the new boss of the CERN laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland, agreed. “At CERN I see that many Italians go and work in Germany, France, or the U.S.,” Gianotti said, speaking from Japan via video link.
The problem is not just the lack of money, but also that funding is handed out erratically. PRIN's calls for proposals can be separated by just a few months or instead by several years, researchers say, making it impossible to plan ahead and build up competitive research groups. Indeed, some argue that Italy should set up a national research agency akin to France's ANR or the U.S. National Science Foundation to award funding more regularly and transparently. Currently, funds are distributed directly by ministries.
Writing in the newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore on Friday, research minister Stefania Giannini didn't make any concrete promises but acknowledged that scientists’ complaints are often well-founded and that “many good ideas have been arriving from the scientific community over the past few weeks." In particular, she took aim at the “bureaucratic suffocation” that she says researchers endure because of their legal status as civil servants. “We know that far more resources are needed,” Giannini wrote. “But we also know that more resources become future investments if, and only if, we have the courage to completely rethink the national research system in the European and international context.”
Parisi stresses that the petition and the meeting must be followed up with concrete action—but he believes it is vital that Italy better appreciates science and higher education. “The problem is not just a lack of funds but the fact that universities are seen as negative," he told the audience last week. "There is still the idea that universities can be scrapped. This is absolutely wrong. This narrative must be fought.”