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Research lands at the Senate

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Not a formal meeting, stiffened by the Senate’s protocol, was hosted last December 10 in the Koch Room of Palazzo Madama (“Meeting on science, innovation and health” coordinated by Marco Cattaneo and Armando Massarenti). But an opportunity for trying stitching up the tear that has been dividing scientists and politicians for a long time. Strongly wanted by the newly appointed senator Elena Cattaneo and organized by the Hygiene and Healthcare Commission of the Senate (thanks to senator De Biasi), the intense morning flew away discussing about science potentiality, importance and   – why not? – profitability.

After the initial greetings, Giuseppe Remuzzi from the Mario Negri Institute (Bergamo) provoked the audience by recounting the story (not a good one) of Count Cavour dying – as reported by the New England Journal of Medicine and the Lancet of the time (1861) – surrounded by “obsolete and opinionated” surgeons, de facto still lingering in the leeches’ era. Yet – commented then the Lancet - "England owes an unmeasurable debt to Italy”. An ancient debt that goes back to the time when Harvey studied in Padova with Casserio and that generated a trust income almost extinguished year after year, until the present situation, with Italy investing in research half of the nearby countries,  holding half the researchers and double the bureaucracy. And, nevertheless, we manage some excellences.

Excellence, regardless

The first part of the morning was spent listing some of these excellences, especially in the biomedical field: from the new frontiers of genic therapy applied to kidney transplants and discussed by Remuzzi himself, to the research work on vascular system in relation to metastasis carried out by Elisabetta Dejana of IFOM (Milano), to the wide project of genetic mapping of autoimmune diseases currently on-going in Sardinia and funded by the National Institutes of Health (Francesco Cucca).
Lamberto Maffei from the Accademia dei Lincei explained the project "Train the brain" and its promising results in dementia’s prevention; Alessandro Bertani from ISMET presented the experience of lung transplants at the Sicilian Centre of excellence, whilst Bruno Dallapiccola referred to translational research in paediatrics, especially in regard to genetic components that nowadays interest 70% of children diseases.

On the other side, Luciano Majani and Roberto Cingolani’s presentation were not ascribable, if not indirectly, to biomedical applications. The first illustrated the huge industrial spin-offs of the Large Hadron Collider for Italy, underlining that these researches in particle physics have already been “translated” in diagnostic and medical therapy, for example hadron therapy; Roberto Cingolani (Director of the Italian Institute of Technology of Genoa, an “alien entity” in the Italian scientific panorama that boasts 1,200 researchers, of whom 42% from abroad, with average age of 33 years and where people are recruited and dismissed according to merit, just like on Mars) explained what nanotechnology will be able to achieve in areas like drugs delivery, artificial retina (by means of solar cells with natural paints) and artificial cochlea using flexo-electric plastics.

In the end – amidst the general amazement (especially Senator Scilipoti’s, who followed bewildered from the last row of seats) – new researches on touch for androids.

How much does research yield?

Andrea Bonaccorsi from the University of Pisa discussed without rhetoric the real profitability of scientific research. In times of shortage of funds, it is hard work convincing the decision makers that scientific research expenses are, de facto, investments, since it is not even obvious from the point of view of economics science. In fact, considering research direct effects only (in terms of patents, royalties, products), research does not re-pay itself. Not even the NASA, whose investment returns can be evaluated around 10%. On the other side, if indirect effects are considered, things become quite different, since knowledge spillover in other fields and investments in human capital generate considerable returns, even though hardly quantifiable, because basic research creates non-linearity when it investigates unknown yet potentiality. However, existing estimations that have been applied backwards (i.e. going back from technological innovations to the scientific discoveries that made them possible) suggest that public research can generate a yearly rate of return around 20-50%. Meaning that public research repays itself in 2-5 years. And just considering the first aspect of indirect effects of research: the knowledge spillover from the researcher desk to industrial products. There is then the investment in human capital: here the rate of return is lower because the public investment into a complete cycle of education for a researcher is quite high (around 280,000 euros, from primary school to university), but not so high to cancel the economic benefits, that are able to generate a rate of return around 15%.

How to reassure, then, those who fear these investments will not be allocated efficiently, generating waste instead of advantages? Well, showing to politicians that scientific research, more than other human activities, can count on merit evaluation instruments that guarantee, somehow, the quality of the investment (among them, ANVUR activity). Experience shows – concluded Bonaccorsi – that when the society asks political questions, researchers always answer with dedication. The problem is making politics asking more to the research world.

Somehow lateral, but impressive, was Sabino Cassese’s presentation on juridical science about the history of science and politics relationship, deepened more from a philosophical point of view at the end of the meeting by Giulio Giorello (on the nexus among science, freedom of research and democracy) and Nicla Vassallo.

Napolitano: States are stingy, take advantages of Horizon 2020!

The more institutional speeches – from the Health Ministry Lorenzin’s, to President of the Senate Grasso and President Napolitano’s – clearly showed the intention of the best part of politics in readmitting science within the decisional processes of politics. Starting from the idea of "Senate of knowledge" that could represent a virtuous exit from the redundancy of our perfect bicameralism (!?). As Napolitano stated, the example of the British House of Commons, the German Bundesrat and the French Senate point out the way for a possible reform of the second Chamber, taking away legislative tasks and specializing in “educational” ones. “Knowing before resolving”, used to say Luigi Einaudi. Napolitano restated it, underlining to the audience the importance of Barroso’s words, when he cited the extraordinary opportunity represented by the new framework programme Horizon 2020, also for Italy.  “National states are really stingy" exclaimed Napolitano in his speech with his unmistakable disdainful accent. “And this is an important exception for research (…) because research is an important part of the European project”.

As properly highlighted by the President of INAF, Giovanni Bignami, in his final recap just before the closing speech of the President of CNR Luigi Nicolais, Napolitano sealed with his presence an important day. Only the first one. Let us hope.

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