Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Is the Italian Brain Drain Becoming a Flood?

Marco Massenzio lives and works in Cambridge and only heads home to his native Italy for holidays. It?s not that he prefers the English weather; rather he believes that the climate for researchers is better in the United Kingdom. He obtained his Ph.D. in engineering in Rome but then discovered that it was very difficult to find a job. Academia was not interested in his work because they considered it too applied, whereas industry thought it too basic! But he moved to the United Kingdom in 1996 and is now director of his own company, Tamarix Consulting.

Massenzio is far from alone. He was just one of the nearly 200 Italians who shared their experiences at a workshop held in Cambridge in March. "Brains on the Run," which was inspired by a recent book of the same title, was organised by the Italian Ph.D. Association ( ADI) and the Cambridge University Italian Society ( CUITSoc) to identify policies that might halt the exodus.

It?s not just to the United Kingdom that Italian brains are fleeing. Lucia Ballerini, coordinator of ADI?s "foreign affairs" task group, is now a postdoc in Sweden. She believes that it is important to distinguish between two separate phenomena: the mobility of human resources--that is, those who leave Italy temporarily to broaden their knowledge of research and other cultures--and the loss of those brains forever. The former is desirable and beneficial to both science and society. The latter exhausts Italian science, says Ballerini, because it is a one-way process that is not balanced by repatriations or by attracting foreign scientists to Italian public institutions. So Italy spends on the education of its young but doesn?t benefit later from the generation of culture, science, technology, and wealth.

A large part of the problem, it seems, lies in Italy?s cumbersome academic appointments system, which is difficult for Italians to navigate and virtually impenetrable for foreigners. Acquiring a permanent academic job is based on national competitions, or concorsi. Calls for these are rare and positions are few. For non-Italians there are the additional hurdles that concorsi for any job, at any level, are held exclusively in Italian, and that foreign degrees are not automatically recognised (which is also a problem for Italians who have studied abroad). For this reason ADI and the Council for European Doctoral and Postdoctoral Students ( Eurodoc--see Next Wave?s series, the Eurodoc Exchange) are pressing for a definition of doctoral training and harmonisation of titles at the European level.

Even in the most favourable circumstances, it is rare for a young researcher to achieve an academic position sooner than 10 years after obtaining his or her Ph.D. Because of the long period spent in education, this means getting your first "proper" job when you are in your 40s! And the lucky few can find that life in academic research is disappointing: slow career progression, low salaries, little competitiveness, few resources, bureaucracy, and the lack of a real meritocracy discourage scientists from pursuing a career in their home country.

Extremely poor public funding is a chronic problem for Italian research affecting both universities and National Research Council institutes. "Italy invests only half of the percentage of gross national product (1.06%) that European countries spend on average on research (2.2%)," says ADI National Secretary Flaminia Saccá. Moreover, private industry's support for basic research hardly reaches significant figures, and only a very few outstanding institutions benefit from this kind of funding. "It is therefore remarkable that in spite of the underinvestment, [a recent survey by the Ministry of Education, University, and Research ( MIUR) shows that] the Italian scientific community is able to produce high-quality publications above the European average," says Saccá.

Given the problems in the public sector, why do Italian researchers not look to industry for employment? Job opportunities are slim here also. Moreover, highly trained postgraduates do not seem to gain any advantage from their Ph.D. in industry. On the contrary, they are sometimes seen as "elderly students" lacking real work experience. "It?s absurd that the skills which are ignored in Italy are ... much appreciated in other countries, where the 'made in Italy' label is greatly valued," says Roberto Cipolla, a professor in the Department of Engineering at the University of Cambridge.

So what is different beyond the national border? In a lively discussion at the end of the workshop, the unanimous feeling was that there are greater and fairer opportunities abroad, both in academia and industry; there is good funding, incentives to carry on independent research projects, enthusiasm, and, last but not least, higher salaries.

But there is reason for moderate optimism among those Italians who would like to return to Italy or stay at home. For the first time Italy now has a national research plan, which includes a series of strategic programmes to better manage resources and increase competitiveness in basic and applied research. And some attempts have been made recently to turn the brain drain into a gain.

The good news comes from Alessandro Schiesaro, director of the Department of Classics at King?s College, London. "MIUR has allocated new funds until 2003 to create real opportunities in Italy for the return of young runaway scientists," he says. The attractive repatriation programme is comparable to the U.K. Royal Society?s research fellowships scheme in terms of salary, research grants, and independence. "However, this is still a small and limited project, with no impact on a long-term change in the structure of academia," he laments. "To achieve a complete modernisation, it is necessary to change the recruitment procedures based on concorsi."

Workshop participants agreed that collective action by the government, universities, and Italy?s National Research Council will be needed to ensure a brighter future for Italian research. Above all, participants argued for an increase in the research budget that would lead to larger research grants and higher salaries, investment in young researchers, more effective distribution of resources, private sector involvement in funding research, the creation of bridges with industry, and faster decisions on the allocation of funding. But these initiatives would require some big steps forward, steps that Schiesaro argues are only likely to come if "pressure" is brought to bear on policy-makers to speed change.

With this aim in mind, ADI is now organising a series of similar debates around Europe; watch the ADI Web site for details. And a sequel to the book Brains on the Run, which inspired the workshop, is in the works.

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers