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A new Italian funding agency would be supervised by the Ministry of Education, University, and Research in Rome.


Can Italy’s new science funding agency overcome a thin budget and worries over political meddling?

Scientists in Italy are about to receive a long-sought gift—but some are disappointed. This month, Italy is expected to set up its first national science funding agency, with an annual budget that would rise to €300 million. Italian scientists are welcoming the boost to a thin basic research budget and the prospect of an independent body that could allocate the money transparently. But some complain that the sum is too small and worry that the new National Research Agency (ANR) will be vulnerable to political interference.

Originally announced in September by Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who leads a coalition government of the populist Five Star Movement and the center-left Democratic Party, the ANR proposal is now a part of the country's 2020 budget bill, which the Parliament must approve by 31 December. The Senate is set to vote on the bill this week, after which it will move to the lower house. The agency could be up and running in a matter of months—with many questions hanging over it.

"There is the willingness to set up a national science funding agency, but there is not much clarity on how it should be done," says Maria Cristina Messa, a clinical diagnostics researcher at the University of Milan-Bicocca. Messa adds that €300 million might be adequate to fund basic research projects. "But for applied research, it's definitely not enough," she says.

With R&D spending of about 1.3% of its gross domestic product, Italy lags behind the 2.4% average of other developed countries. Nearly one-third of the spending, which totaled €23.8 billion in 2017, according to the Italian National Institute of Statistics, came from public sources such as the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of the Environment, and the Ministry of Education, University, and Research (MIUR). But ministry funding can be erratic and lacks long-term planning, says Piergiuseppe De Berardinis, an immunologist at the Italian National Research Council in Naples. For example, MIUR's last grant call for basic research was in 2017, and grant winners began to receive the money only this year. What's more, grant review is often a black box, De Berardinis says. Italian public agencies approve or reject applications "with just a few lines of boilerplate text, which leaves no room for appeal," he says.

ANR won't solve these problems, as it will be an add-on to the current system rather than a replacement, says Nicola Bellomo, a mathematician at the Polytechnic University of Turin and president of Gruppo 2003, a group that has called for a national funding agency. But it could make some annual grant calls and distribute its limited funds efficiently and transparently, Bellomo says.

The current bill says ANR's annual budget would start with €25 million in 2020, and rise to €200 million in 2021 and €300 million in 2022. It would fund "innovative" projects, help coordinate research at universities and public agencies, and promote Italy's participation in international projects.

The bill also says ANR will be an independent agency working "under the supervision" of the prime minister and the research minister. Most appointments to the agency would be political: The prime minister would select the director, and the politically appointed ministers of several government agencies would appoint five of the eight members of the ANR executive board. "That's very troubling," says Alberto Baccini, an economist at the University of Siena, who worries that political appointees could steer funds to fit an ideological agenda. To safeguard the agency's political independence, Baccini says scientists should elect at least some of its management. Others hope an international search committee would select experts to ANR's executive board.

The head of MIUR's technical secretariat, Fulvio Esposito, who helped write the draft bill, admits that the current proposal is a hastily written outline for the new agency. Esposito says MIUR is trying to get the Parliament to simplify the bill so that it establishes the agency without specifying how it will be staffed and run. That would allow MIUR officials to spend time studying the structures and funding models of research agencies in other developed countries and gather feedback from Italian researchers.

James Wilsdon, a science policy researcher at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom, cautions that adding another funding organization, which could take years to set up completely, might not be the best way to boost Italian research. Wilsdon also worries that friction about ANR's structure could become a distraction from increasing Italy's overall research spending, "which is clearly what's required." Although €300 million won't propel Italy past other nations, he says it's a nontrivial amount, and that it's sensible to start small, see what works, and scale up.

Others are more optimistic. The creation of ANR signals an ambition to turn around the fortunes of Italian research, says molecular biologist Rosario Rizzuto, president of the University of Padua. If adequately structured and funded, Rizzuto says, the agency can be "a good opportunity to boost investments that are necessary for the economic growth of our country."