Italian Minister for Education, University, and Research Valeria Fedeli

AP Photo/Luca Bruno

Italian scientists welcome surprise €400 million boost for basic research

Plagued by budget cuts and attacks on science, Italian scientists have had little to cheer about recently. But on Sunday, they received a welcome surprise when Valeria Fedeli, the minister for education, university, and research, announced that Italy will put an extra €400 million into its main basic science fund, the Research Projects of National Interest (PRIN). The money, to be spent over 3 years, will more than quadruple PRIN’s annual funding.

The biggest part of the increase, €250 million, will come out of unused reserves at the Italian Institute of Technology (IIT), a government-funded foundation under private law in Genoa that has recently come under criticism.

“This is the largest investment in competitive funds for basic research of the last 20 years,” says Elena Cattaneo, a stem cell biologist at the University of Milan and a senator for life in the Italian Parliament who had lobbied for the shift to basic science. PRIN funding has been going up and down since 2002, according to a group of academics calling itself Return On Academic ReSearch (ROARS), but overall has been modest. The latest funding round, in 2015, provided only €95 million for 3 years.

Cattaneo had argued that IIT, founded in 2003 to foster innovation, could easily cough up the funds for a hike at PRIN. Scientists have criticized IIT for a lack of transparency in the way it allocates its funding—currently some €98 million annually from the Ministry of Economy and Finance—and for its role in the creation of a new research hub at the site of the World Expo 2015 in Milan. Cattaneo has also been very vocal about the accumulation of hundreds of millions of Euros in the institute. By reallocating the funds, the government has acknowledged the value of basic research, she says.

IIT’s scientific director, Roberto Cingolani, says the institute’s large surplus is primarily the result of savings during its early years. “Three years ago, we started to plan an expansion of the institute in Genoa,” that would have cost about €200 million, he says—a plan that is now off the table. Cingolani says he is “disappointed” by the criticisms of IIT, but glad that the cut there will benefit basic research.

ROARS member Alberto Baccini, a professor of political economics at the University of Siena, applauds the decision as well and credits Cattaneo. “We must acknowledge [her] crusade,” he says.

A spokesperson for the research ministry could not provide details today about how the money will be spent. It’s important that the process uses uniform assessment criteria and is transparent, Baccini says. (He notes that it’s impossible to find the projects awarded under the 2015 funding bolus for PRIN online.) “The problem is not just the lack of money, but also that funding is handed out without a method, really,” he says.

*Correction: The description of IIT's legal status was changed on 11 September and again on 17 November 2017.