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Italy's Research System Is on The Verge of Collapsing

Scientists are leaving in droves.

21 FEB 2018

Italy's scientific research is in a precarious state, and the nation's upcoming elections are not likely to improve the problem.

Italy is a world leader in scientific research, especially in fields like particle physics and biomedicine. But for the last few decades, the country has failed to modernize its science system, and things are looking bleak.


"We are on the verge of collapse," said Mario Pianta, an economist who helps prepare Italy's statistics on research and development (R&D) for the European Commission.

Yet while topics like immigration, refugees and Eurozone membership have dominated the national political debate, very little has been said about science or scientific research.

Scientists and researchers in the country fear that continued budget cuts and declining interesting in science will only get worse – no matter who wins the upcoming March elections.

Since the 2008 economic crisis, Italy's already scant R&D budget has declined by 20 percent – a total of €1.2 billion, which is nearly $1.5 billion U.S. dollars.

While funding for public research institutes has dropped by 9 percent, the budget for universities has shrunk by about a fifth, which is roughly €7 billion. As a result, the number of professors in the nation has also plummeted.

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But it's not just professors that are leaving Italy in droves, so too are scientists. Since 2008, more scientists have left the country than have entered it, according to statistics frmo the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

"It is not just that scientists are going to countries with strong bases in science," said Pianta.


"There is also a net loss of scientists from Italy to countries like Spain."

Strangely enough, Italy's scientific output hasn't seemed to suffer from the budget cuts or mass exodus... yet. 

Italy still produces more publications per unit of R&D expenditure than any other European Union country except the United Kingdom. Plus, since 2005, it has actually increased its contribution to the 10 percent of the world's most cited scientific documents.

"The happy paradox cannot sustain," said Pianta.

"We are heading towards mediocrity."

In Italy, like many other countries, research organizations have very little political power. As a result, the gap in scientific achievement and advancement between the country's poor south and wealthier north is growing. For instance, northern universities received an overwhelming share of government funds for R&D this year.

Raffaella Rumiati, vice-president of Italy's national research-evaluation agency (ANVUR) says this has merely helped fuel the nation's regionalist and populist politics.

The next government will likely be a complex coalition, although the populist Five Star Movement is leading in the polls. While the Five Star Movement's platform promises to increase research funding and establish a dedicated agency for distributing research money, researchers remain worried by party members who have vociferously supported anti-science campaigns, including the anti-vaccination movement currently sweeping Italy.

Italian engineer Mattia Butta was so sick of the anti-science rhetoric in Italy that last year he founded a pro-science political party.

"I wanted scientific method to enter parliament," he said. Unfortunately, Butta's party didn't make the electoral list cut, although another single-issue party against vaccinations did.

One things for sure, the next Italian government will have its work cut out.

The research was published in Nature.