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Italy's plans for new research hub get critical reception

The “Tree of Life” at the World Expo 2015 site in Milan, Italy, where the Human Technopole is planned.


Why many Italian scientists aren't happy with a new, €1.5 billion research hub

It sounded like a gift to Italian research: a brand-new center for the life sciences, lavishly funded by the government and housed at the stylish site of a former world expo in Milan, Italy’s fashion and science capital. The effort would receive €1.5 billion over the next decade and focus on genomics, personalized medicine, cancer, and neurodegenerative diseases.

But plans for the Human Technopole Italy 2040 (HT), revealed by Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi on 24 February, have drawn mostly criticism. Many researchers applaud the government for investing in science, which has suffered from drastic budget cuts and political neglect. But they object to the lack of transparency with which the plan was hatched. And some worry that it won’t benefit the best researchers and institutes, but those with the best connections.

Italian research is becoming a desert.

Massimo Dominici

“While national research is agonizing, the prime minister pulls the HT out of his hat,” Elena Cattaneo, an internationally recognized stem cell researcher at the University of Milan and senator for life, wrote in the daily newspaper La Repubblica recently. She called the center an example of “political improvisation and of how public funding for research shouldn’t be managed.” Return on Academic ReSearch, an association of scientists, has criticized the “unbalanced concentration of resources in the Milan area, while the rest of the country is dying.”

Backers, however, see the HT as a bold bid to save Italian science. It “represents the best opportunity for medical, scientific and civil progress in Italy since the Second World War,” oncologist Umberto Veronesi, who helped create the plan, wrote in La Repubblica.

The HT helped solve a problem for Italy’s government: What to do with the 110-hectare site in the northwest of Milan vacated by Expo 2015, which drew 22 million people between May and October. The plan, developed by the Italian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Genoa, together with universities and institutes in Milan and elsewhere in northern Italy, calls for seven new centers focusing on medical genomics, agriculture and food science, big-data analysis, and nanoscience, to be run by IIT. Labs are also planned at hospitals, research centers, and universities in the Milan area, and institutes elsewhere in Italy may be involved as well—including the National Research Council—but how is unclear.

“Our mandate is to open labs solely in Milan for now,” says IIT’s scientific director, Roberto Cingolani, adding that scientists from elsewhere are welcome to use the HT’s facilities. The center would recruit some 1500 researchers from around the world and seek investments from biotech, pharmaceutical, food, and high-
tech companies.

Nobody disputes that Italian science can use a shot in the arm. Government spending for universities has decreased by more than 10% since 2009, to some €6.9 billion this year. Over the same period, a key funding stream, the Research Projects of National Interest, went down from about €100 million to €30 million annually. In a recent letter in Nature, physicist Giorgio Parisi of the University of Rome La Sapienza and 69 other scientists urged the European Union to put pressure on Italy to spend 3% of its gross domestic product on research; an online petition making the same request has already gathered 65,000 signatures.

But the HT isn’t what Parisi and others were hoping for. The plan was developed without any debate in parliament or the academic world and approved in emergency legislation; media stories have suggested that pharma executives and Milan research institutes convinced Renzi to support it. Even today, details remain vague. A blueprint produced by IIT is awaiting review by a government panel, Cingolani says, but it has not been published. “An investment of this magnitude should involve the scientific community, not just a small number of people,” Parisi says.

Malaysia's pavilion at the Expo 2015 site.

Malaysia's pavilion at the Expo 2015 site.

Davric/CC BY-SA 4.0/Wikimedia Commons

Some say IIT’s record doesn’t bode well for its stewardship of the new center. Launched in 2003, IIT has a €96 million annual budget from the Ministry of Economic Development to foster innovation. Because it is a private foundation, it can disburse money for research and hire researchers without issuing public calls, unlike Italy’s universities. It has set up labs at universities and research institutes around the country, often based on unclear criteria, says Giovanni Bachelet, a physicist at La Sapienza and a former member of the Chamber of Deputies for the Democratic Party. ITT “is funded through public money so it should be accountable for anything it does,” Bachelet says. If the HT is run in the same way, it won’t live up to its promises, he says.

Cingolani, who has headed IIT since 2005, dismisses those worries. IIT is run according to the highest international standards and does hire its scientists through public calls, he says. He points to a string of successes, including 130 European grants, 350 patent applications, 60 collaborations with industry, and 12 startups. The HT will bring huge technological and medical advancements to the country, he says.

But the skeptics are unconvinced. “Italian research is becoming a desert,” says Massimo Dominici, an oncologist and hematologist at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia, “but that doesn’t mean water should be poured in without following international standards.”

*Update, 4 April, 2:50 p.m.: Laura Margottini is a freelance journalist who is also an employee of the Institute for Complex Systems of Italy's National Research Council, where she writes about economic complexity.