Bringing Back the Brains

"Forza scienza" or "forza calcio"? Should you support your nation's science or its football? In Italy, it is an easy decision to make: Football rules, and winning major club championships across Europe attracts praise and glory--as well as substantial funding. If Italy chose to transfer even a part of this financial support to scientific research, then developments in drug technology, engineering, and genetic therapies might well begin to overshadow the country's skills with the ball.

Italy invests just 1% of its gross national product in scientific research, half of the EU average. Despite this lack of investment, exciting discoveries and medical breakthroughs do occur. In June 2002, for example, a young girl treated with a new genetic therapy developed at the San Raffaele Hospital in Milan was cured of severe immune deficiency syndrome. Without such a cure, that child would have spent her life in a protective "bubble," away from infection and interaction with other children. And the third stage of testing has begun on a promising AIDS vaccine.

The Italian government claims that its research and development funding decisions are driven by the needs of economic competitiveness, environmental protection, job creation, and European integration. But the 1998 annual report of the Italian National Research Council warned that "Italy's research is neglected. Unable to compete, Italy will miss the opportunity to reap the benefits of Europe in terms of wealth and jobs." Indeed, the problems of poor funding, low salaries, and unpredictable resources lead many scientists to seek work abroad. Now, Italy is looking, and not for the first time, to encourage these experts back to home soil to help rekindle the science revolution.

As long ago as 1988, the "Programma Nazionale della Ricerca," brainchild of Antonio Ruberti, a former minister of scientific research, aimed to create a scientific "renaissance" by persuading Italian scientists working overseas--including several Nobel laureates--to return to Italy. Salaries of up to 245 million lire were promised, together with lavish laboratory facilities. The initial plan was to create 20 "superposts" at the Institute for Nuclear Physics and another 40 in the National Research Council. Unfortunately, successive budget cuts meant that just nine posts were eventually created in 1993.

And just two Nobel laureates, Renalto Dulbecco and Rita Levi Montalcini, both now in their eighties, were attracted home from the United States. One other world-class researcher, genetics expert Marcello Siniscalco, came back, too. But after spending his time in a far-flung laboratory on Sardinia and failing to receive the financial resources promised to him, he returned to the U.S. In a report in the British newspaper, The Times, Siniscalco expressed his views on the failed initiative: "This law has been a missed opportunity. We might have formed a scientific task force capable of competing with the rest of the world. Instead, we slipped into the usual Italian vices."

Now, Italy is trying again. At the end of 2000, the president of the National Research Council (CNR), Lucio Bianco, presented his annual report on the developments made over the past year. Although there were many successes, he emphasised the point that lack of funding and low salaries were driving young researchers away from scientific research and causing Italy to fall even further behind its European counterparts. The then minister of education, Guido Possa, agreed with certain aspects of Bianco's statement, and the government planned a new funding programme to help young researchers and develop Italian science.

At the beginning of 2002, it was reported that the Ministry for Education and Scientific Research had developed a project offering economic incentives to attract 96 "brains" back to Italy to take up posts in Italian universities. The first group of 55 academics to return was supported with government funds of ?4.8 million for university infrastructure and ?1.7 million for research. A second group of 41 researchers was funded with a correspondingly smaller pot of money. It is possible that a third group will follow. The scheme has targeted successful, high-profile Italian scientists working abroad.

Most have returned from the U.S. (22), the United Kingdom (16), and France (12), with others heading home from countries as diverse as Germany, Equador, South Africa, and Switzerland. All disciplines are represented, from biomedical and natural sciences to engineering, economics, psychology, and politics. Thirty Italian universities, among them La Sapienza in Rome and universities in Florence, Trieste, Bologna, and Genoa, have accepted the economic incentives and gained experienced academics. Each university receives start-up funds of ?75,000 per researcher, on top of which the government funds 90% of the returner's research, for a certain time period and a budget agreed to by the researcher and a panel from the CNR. The remaining 10% is funded by the university itself.

So far; so good. But only time will tell if the move back will be as successful as anticipated.

Meanwhile, the success of another initiative in nurturing home-grown and returning scientific talent is perhaps clearer to see. The Telethon Foundation, which has raised over ?170 million through an annual televised marathon, has been financing Italian scientific research for the last 12 years. In 1999, it founded the virtual Dulbecco Telethon Institute (DTI) to support the careers of outstanding scientists at all levels. With the slogan "La ricerca torna a casa" ("Research comes home"), the Institute has already succeeded in attracting a number of leading young researchers back to Italy. They include Stefano Bertuzzi, who returned 2 years ago from the U.S. to set up his own group. In an interview with the newspaper Corriere della Sera, he praised Telethon for introducing American values into the Italian academic system, so that young academics get the credit for the work they perform.

Every year under the Telethon Scientist Career Program, the DTI accepts applications from researchers who wish to start their own independent labs in Italy. They may be appointed at one of three levels, associate, assistant, or full Telethon scientist, provided they are not already in a full-time post at an Italian research institution. Competition is tough, and selection is based on scrutiny of a candidate's research proposal by a distinguished panel of international scientists. Research must be directed towards the diagnosis, prevention, and cure of human genetic diseases.

But the fellowships are worth having. Funded in the first instance for 5 years, all successful applicants will be assessed at the end of Year 4, with a view to continuation of their funding and possible promotion to the next Telethon scientist grade. So far, 17 researchers have been awarded the title "assistant Telethon scientist" and one the intermediate position of "associate Telethon scientist." All receive their own salaries and research funds--as well as a salary for a PhD student or postdoc to carry out their research at an Italian research institute.

The return of the "brains" is all very well, but how do those researchers who have never left Italy feel about wanderers being lured home with attractive packages? Undoubtedly, there is a little envy, but among those to whom Next Wave has spoken, there is also--more often than not--an admiration for the skills and knowledge these scientists have acquired abroad. One Italian scientist felt that it was a positive move. After years of falling behind in world research technology, importing the experiences of others could be a fast-track system of catching up, she suggested. Nonetheless, "there are many intelligent and highly trained Italian scientists who have never worked abroad," she continued. "Experience in the U.S. is nice but not essential. We have the knowledge and tools to develop new technologies and discover mechanisms for genetic therapy. Instead of pouring money into new projects, why not improve the funding for those which already exist?" she asks.

Undoubtedly, there are still many problems. For the majority of graduates who start work in a lab, the salaries are still low, and it is a long, hard struggle to stay in research. But perhaps schemes such as that run by Telethon offer a glimmer of hope for brighter prospects and more security for talented Italian research scientists in the future. Italy is already beginning to show its promise with the development of gene-therapy techniques and the discovery of genes that could lead to a cure for Parkinson's disease and other neurodegenerative disorders. Soon newspapers worldwide could be reporting on the fantastic medical breakthroughs occurring in Italy, as well as on the successes of Juventus and AC Milan in the football league.

Having completed a physiology degree in the United Kingdom, Samantha Bennett is currently working in Italy on a "borsa di studio" contract funded by the Telethon Foundation.

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