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Let's build a future for Italian research

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The theme of scientific research has been totally neglected in the election campaign, which has paid no more than lip service to this issue. Italian scientific research needs a better future, made up of strategic investments, planning, transparency and merit-based incentives. Most of all, Italy needs a productive and competitive scientific research in order to put an end to the decline to which it is heading in the wake of the current severe economic and financial crisis. Our country needs new jobs and an economy that gets back to growth. In today's economy the only way to a healthy and growing economy is to invest in research, innovation, technology and education of future generations (schools and universities).

We need a cultural change, that recognizes the fundamental role played by scientific research as a driver of growth, stimulus and innovation policies. On the contrary, for too long we have been witness to a general lack of cultural and political interest in research, which is bringing us further apart from countries such as Germany, France and the United States, and appears as a serious lack of interest in the future of the country.

The Group 2003 brings together Italian scientists working in Italy, who are among the most quoted researchers in the international scientific literature. We share a deep concern for the current and future state of scientific research in Italy.

In view of the upcoming political elections all parties state they are in favour of research.

The President of the Republic, Giorgio Napolitano and Prime Minister Mario Monti, on 30 November 2012 opened the special TG7 RaiUno with the following statements: "In today's global world, as we know very well, the challenge we face is innovation, research and competitiveness " and "For our country, investing in research and innovation is of strategic importance"; words, however, are not enough, they need to be confirmed by facts.

We ask the parties and the political movements who are running to govern Italy, to provide clear answers to the ten following issues:

1. Investment in Research. Our country spends less than half of all its competitors in Research (about 1% of GDP). This gap is only partly explained by the fact that our industrial structure is mainly made up of small and medium size enterprises. Investment in research has consistently been neglected at the expense of the country's future.

  • What is your realistic commitment to increasing the percentage of GDP dedicated to research and higher education in the next three years? According to what schedule? The Group 2003 proposes a 20% increase per year over the next three years regardless of the current economic situation and pressures from individual lobbies.
  • How and where will you find the resources for this additional investment?
  • To which areas will you give priority?
  • How will you prevent these additional resources from turning into a waste of money, given a system that is still far from a meritocracy?
  • Do you agree on reducing taxes on donations to research institutions and to research in general? If so, how and with what timing?

2. Evaluation and rewarding criteria. The way public funding is allocated to research projects is still affected by criteria characterized by scarce transparency and meritocracy. In recent years 10% or so of the ordinary financing granted to universities (FFO) was still allocated on the basis of evaluation parameters resulting from the CIVR (Guiding Committee for the Evaluation of Research) evaluation conducted over 8 years ago. Using a bipartisan approach a valuation agency has been set up (ANVUR) and an evaluation named VQR is currently in progress.

  • Do you intend to increase the portion of FFO allocated on the basis of the parameters issued from the research evaluation?
  • By how much and with what timing?
  • The evaluation of research projects is crucial to ensure that funding is provided on the basis of merit through an unbiased assessment. The "peer review " process that involves independent international experts working anonymously, is applied at the international level in order to obtain an assessment based on merit. How do you intend to apply this type of rigorous selection to public funding for research?

3. International competitiveness and rewarding criteria. All countries, in different ways, have chosen to make selective investments in a few universities and research centers with the aim of making them competitive and among the best at the international level.For example, Germany, France, United Kingdom, China, etc..., invest selectively in a number of universities. Italian universities do not rank high internationally, although they rank better when classified on the basis of objective parameters rather than reputation. Again, in terms of European funding to scientific research, our country only obtains about half of the resources it provides, which proves it is not very competitive. In addition, and paradoxically, those who are granted international funding have to pay IRAP (regional business tax) tax on the funding they are awarded!

  • Do you agree on selecting a limited number of universities (10 based on the German example?) and research centers and provide them with adequate resources in order to bring them to the highest international rankings?
  • If so, with what timing? Which resources would you use? Which procedures would you adopt?
  • Do you intend to introduce rewards for those who get international funding, according to international models and methods? 

4. Control system. The limited resources invested in research in our country are disbursed through funding coming from different ministries, which is scattered over numerous streams and is often poorly controlled or cannot be controlled.

  • Are you willing to conduct a rigorous analysis in order to acquire knowledge about all the funds that the public system makes available to research and describe the criteria for disbursement?
  • The Group 2003 proposed a National Research Agency, a coordinating streamlined, efficient and transparent structure, based on peer-review criteria, both for top-down and bottom-up funding. Are you willing to create such an agency to make the allocation of funding to research more coordinated, efficient and transparent?
  • How will you improve the activity of ANVUR?
  • With respect to the biomedical sector, charities such as Telethon and AIRC (Italian Association for Cancer Research) have shown that "things can be done". Do you intend to use these private, non-profit organizations as a model?

5. Constraints. The efficient use of the country's scarce resources is hampered by an infinite number of constraints and limitations. The Group 2003 and the highest advisory body of the Ministry of University and Research (CEPR) have repeatedly called attention to this issue and have specifically identified several of these constraints.

  • Do you intend to eliminate these constraints identified by CEPR? Which ones and when?

6.Legal value of university degrees. Abolishing the legal value of university degrees would increase competition among universities and would have a positive impact on the quality of universities and their productivity, triggering a virtuous circle. The 2003 Group has proposed the abolition of the legal value of university degrees for 10 years. The Monti Government took some action in order to make the legal value of university degrees less relevant in certain sectors.

  • Do you agree to abolish the legal value of university degrees?
  • Alternatively, do you agree with a further action to make the legal value of university degrees less relevant? If so, how would you implement it?

7. Attracting and retaining brains. On a global scale a real race is ongoing to grab the gold of the third millennium, no longer the yellow nor the black gold, but gray gold, consisting of brains. In this respect, our country is suffering not only and not so much from a brain drain, but also, and especially, by a lack of attractiveness. The Programs to Reverse the brain drain have produced often questionable results, in terms of of quality and commitment.

  • Do you agree on defining a dedicated and facilitated path (visas, residence permits), including from the point of view of taxation, to attract foreign brains in our country?
  • Getting "brains back" is meaningless if we are not able to offer attractive packages, for example with respect to the winners of international competitions such as the IDEAS Program of the the European Research Council. Medium and long term programs should be offered to attract also those people who hold long-term or permanent positions abroad and facilitate direct hiring. Do you intend to allocate resources in order to offer flexible and competitive packages aimed at attracting or getting brains back? Where you will get the necessary resources?

8. Industrial research and Technological Transfer. The Italian research system suffers from an insufficient transfer of results to society as a whole and to industry. For example, in a hypothetical match between Italy and Germany in terms of research, using citations as an indicator of basic research, Italy's score is 75% of Germany (a great result if we consider the difference in size and quality of the investment), but only 19% if we consider the transfer of know-how to industry as an indicator. In short, the funnel of technological transfer is abnormally tight.

  • What do you intend to do for technology transfer?
  • Which practical measures do you intend to take to promote a transparent and profitable relationship, targeted to technology transfer?
  • In Italy, industrial investment in research is insufficient; this shortcoming is correlated to some extent to the prevalence of small and medium sized firms. What will you do to promote industrial research?
  • We believe that industrial research programs funded by the State have been and are scarcely productive due to cumbersome and slow procedures, requests for surreptitious aggregations, etc.. Do you really intend to reduce taxes on investment in research?
  • To what extent?
  • In which manner?

9. Talented and deserving young people. The so-called "Human Capital" is the true wealth of our country.The national economy is losing a generation of researchers due to the scarcity of resources and the unreliability of career paths.

  • There are criteria and standards developed at the international level that define the requirements needed to access the various positions in research as well as assessment procedures both at the beginning and during a person's career. The application of these criteria and parameters at the national level is urgent.
  • How will you approach this issue with a view to create career paths for researchers that are reliable and merit-based, in line with international standards?
  • Do you agree not to favor any hiring or promotion by "operation of law" however disguised?
  • The right of talented and deserving people to access the highest levels of education and contribute to scientific research is largely denied in our country due, for example, to insufficient scholarships or research grants, etc..
  • What will you do to support the right to education and the right and duty that the best brains in Italy have, regardless of their social class, to contribute to Italian research?
  • Are you committed to finding the resources necessary to promote the hiring of a new generation of young people in the research sector (scholarships, research grants, etc..)? Where will you get those resources?

10. Do you believe it is essential to promote and revive a Culture of Science and Research in a country where it has always been substantially neglected?

  • Which initiatives will you take that can be sustainable over time?
  • Are you committed to investing in the scientific education of young people?
  • Which initiative will you take in this respect?

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