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Italian science diplomacy in Far East: a new stage has begun

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Italian scientific research is slowly moving toward Far East. Following the “VietNam – Italy economic cooperation Forum” held in September, the scientific cooperation program with Vietnam (begun in 1992) has been renewed on October 2nd, as this Country is considered one of the ten most relevant Country for Italian investments in Asia.

Generally speaking, Italian scientific cooperation policies toward Asia had been weakened by an underestimation of this area (preferring European and American Countries), a general lack of clear strategies and the scarcity of financial resources. Anyway, Italian science diplomacy in Asia could be divided into two steps. The second one has just begun, with a new interest towards minor Countries, such as Vietnam. The first step, on the contrary, dates back several decades, and brought important results by strengthening relations with the three main Countries of the area: Japan, China and South Korea.


Chart 1. Research and development expenditure on GDP


Japan is known for being prominent in robotics, consumer electronics and biomedical research. Since the “Science and Technology Basic Law” in 1995, Japan had had a clear and foreseeing policy towards R&D, through multi-years plans (today is in force the "4th Science and Technology Basic Plan”) and 3.3% of its GDP invested in R&D, 80% of which is provided by the private sector. On 15 May 2013 the “10th Executive Programme on Scientific Cooperation between Italy and Japan 2013-2015” has been signed (the first in 1982). The main fields of cooperation are those related to physics, astronomy, life science, nanotechnologies and robotics. A particular interest is reserved to the construction of the tokamak JT60-SA, an advanced device for the study of nuclear fusion, where the Italian Agency for New Technology, Energy and Environment (ENEA, formerly National Nuclear Energy Agency) is responsible for the construction of the superconducting coils. Another relevant project is IFMIF, focused on searching materials suitable for a nuclear use, where the Italian National Institute for Nuclear Physics (INFN) is responsible for a linear accelerator component (the RFQ, radio frequency quadrupole). In addition, 14 bilateral agreements have been signed this year between Italian and Japanese research institutions - from 2007 a total of 224.


Chart 2: Company spending in R&D by Country; 1= low, 7=heavy spending


With 2.5 million employees in R&D, China is reaching the US and Japan as a major R&D Country. Chinese policies towards scientific and technological research focused on the creation of 333 Key State National Laboratories (KSNL), where financial resources meet with the best researchers. In addition to KSNL there are 387 engineering research centers and 83 high tech industrial zones. But this great infrastructure creates mainly two problems: a shortage of highly skilled researchers and a production-oriented science at the expense of the basic one. Anyway, China represents a great opportunity for Italy. The National scientific cooperation towards this country dates back to 1978. On 24th April 2012 the “Executive programme on educational cooperation 2012-2015” had been signed, while on 2009 was signed one on “Scientific cooperation 2010-2012”. Among the many bilateral agreements between research institutions, there are several success stories. In 2005 was created the first Sino-Italian Campus, called Politong, joined by Politech Universities of Turin and Milan and Tongji University in China, to develop a bachelor program in engineering. Previously, in 2000, was launched the “Sino-Italian cooperation program for environmental protection”, joined by the Italian and Chinese Ministries for Environment, in order to support sustainable development and promote the cooperation between enterprises of the two countries.

Jumping to the other coast of the Yellow Sea, South Korea has many similarities with Italy, as both are peninsulas with scarcity of raw materials. But there are also differences, starting from a larger Korean investment in R&D that brought the Asian Country to be ranked as the sixth Country worldwide for investments in R&D. In 2008, the South Korea government released the “National Five-year Plan for Green Growth 2009-2013” in which Korea stated to invest $82.5 billion in research (92% of them by private sector). This is just the first stage of a ten-year plan, which will be concluded in 2018, meant to create 2.3 million new jobs. The plan involves many field of research, such as energy and environment; transport systems; new IT technologies; bio technologies; knowledge-based technologies and nanotechnologies. Italy joined these flourishing research activities in several ways. Currently there are four joint laboratories: on biorobotics and photonics between Sant'Anna University and the Korea Institute for Science and Technology (KIST); on fuel cells between ENEA and KIST; on membrane technology between Italian National Council of Research (CNR) and Hanyang University. Generally speaking, cooperation with some Italian groups of scientific excellence is well established and is privileged from Korea in the international context: for example, with La Sapienza University (physics), the CNR/Naples (biomaterials and composite materials) and the University of Milan (food chemistry). This great scientific cooperation is fueled through “Italy-Korea Forum on Science and Technology” - its “Fifth edition” will be held in Korea this year.

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