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Rebuilding Italian research

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The condition of Italian research is far from being positive. From some perspectives, it may be described as dramatic. The lack of financial resources, aggravated by the indiscriminate cuts that public research continues to suffer, is not the only issue of the Italian research system, which clearly needs a strong intervention in order to save it from the decline it is running towards. But how and where to intervene? Trying to answer to such questions was the aim of the convention organized by Gruppo 2003, Bocconi University and Novartis Italia, which took place in the Aula Magna of the Bocconi University, in Milan, on December 9th.
What to destroy, how to rebuild” is the strong title chosen for the convention, inspired by one of the main topic that was discussed: better to focus on few, excellent universities or to allocate resources in a more widespread manner?
A controversial issue that is strictly bounded to the evaluation of the quality of research, which, not surprisingly, has been selected as the opening topic of the congress. Specifically, the first session delved further into the results of VQR, the evaluation of the quality of research conducted by the National Agency for the Evaluation of Academic and Research System (ANVUR) between 2004 and 2010. All the speakers made some points clear about the VQR: it does not evaluate an individual and it is different from the evaluation of the quality of teaching, which represents a more complex and difficult task. Given this, it has been stressed out that evaluation is a necessary step towards academic autonomy and is not a synonym of punishment. VQR should be intended as food for thought and not as a ranking of good and bad universities.
Evaluation must go hand in hand with prizegiving, meaning that high performing universities must be awarded for the quality of their research. But what about the lower steps of the ladder? As asserted by some presences, giving less money to the universities at the bottom of the ranking may not be the right answer. It is thus necessary to reframe the organization of those institutes with low grades. This was the position of the Minister for Public Education and Research, Maria Chiara Carrozza, who attended the convention and was interviewed by Tito Boeri (Bocconi University). The Minister said that all universities should develop a strategic plan based on VQR, in order to better allocate their resources, and that each single department should find its own vocation. However, this should not lead to “kill” lower level institutes, because this would reduce the access to study. The Minister also opposed the idea of having low level school only dedicated to knowledge transfer and elite universities dedicated to knowledge advancement, because this would represent a ghettoization of education.
For that, the Minister evoked the necessity of a steering committee to coordinate the activity of all the ministries involved in scientific research.

This requirement was also recalled by the President of Gruppo 2003, Maria Grazia Roncarolo (San Raffaele University), during the round table at the end of the convention. She said that funds should not be granted for life but following processes similar to those used for start-up. It is thus necessary to evaluate not only the scientific production but also the return in terms of patents – or clinical trials, in case of life sciences – and the capability to attract foreign researchers and, most of all, to make them stay in Italy. As highlighted by many participants, brain gain, more than the most famous brain drain, is a big problem for Italian research. A problem that has many roots, including the many bureaucratic obstacles that people from abroad must face, the salaries, which are way too low compared to European standards, and the fact that foreign qualifications are not always recognized in Italy. “We continue to show a small-town mentality,” said Minister Carrozza.
We should not be surprised by the fact that the great pharmaceutical and diagnostic companies left Italy, as reminded by Silvio Garattini (Mario Negri Institute). “I understand their choice,” he said, “and they did well”. According to him, this is one of the consequences of the lack of an interface between science and politics, differently from what happens in other countries, and of strategic plans for research, at all levels. Regarding this, more than once during the congress, Catalunya has been cited as a model to follow; despite financial difficulties, the Spanish region developed a strategic plan based on the recruitment of 300 researchers – including 40 ERC winners – with European-level salaries. “All the major cities have some kind of strategic plan, except ours,” said Gianfelice Rocca (Asso Lombarda).

Another big issue regards the relationships between university and industry, due to a lack of communication between two worlds that often speak different languages. Franco Malerba (Bocconi University) complained about the lack of continuity of research carried out by small and medium enterprises. Which is due to the instability of the investments in their research. And, again, to a scarce attention to the brain gain issue. Also, the gap between good ideas and their realization – the so-called “Valley of Death” – is particularly deep and wide in our country. Another sign of the absence of politics, which should help both academy and industry by removing the main brakes that prevent them to cooperate and innovate. “Unburden our backpack and we will be able to climb the mountain,” claimed Alberto Mantovani (University of Milan), who also cited the charities like Telethon or AIRC as good examples for evaluation and fund raising. “Researchers must take advantage of charities,” said Giacomo Rizzolatti (University of Parma). “Even through charities, however,” he pointed out, “collecting money for translational studies it is easier than with basic research”. Many are the flaws of the Italian research system but this does not mean that in our country there are not the conditions for competitiveness. “With proper rules, Italian research can compete at high level,” said Francesca Pasinelli (Telethon).
In order to do so, however, there is much work to do and a great coordination between university, industry and politics is required to strengthen the Italian research system, which is fundamental to innovate our country and save it from the decline it is facing.

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