ERC ranking: young researchers on the run

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Our youngsters are keeping up despite the mounting difficulties. Italy, however, has lost any residual appeal. The ERC junior selection for 2013 – i.e. the grants for young researchers from the European Union and associated countries, just assigned by the European Research Council – could have not been much clearer.

Italian young researchers won only 17 on the 287 assigned grants for research projects: 5.9% of the total. Not a lot, if we consider that, in 2008, Italy won 35 grants on about 300 (12% of the total) in an analogous (but non homologous) selection. But not too few either, since English won 22 and French 26, even though they have many more researchers, especially young ones. Only Germany stands out, with 55 assigned grants. But Germany has a number of researchers which is between 3 and 4 times higher than Italy. If 5 years ago we could still reap more than we sowed, now we reap exactly what we sow.

We doubtlessly moved back: in 2008 we were at the second place for absolute number of successes, now we are sixth. But the individual competitiveness of our youngsters still remains similar to their European colleagues. It is the capacity of our country that cannot be compared anymore with the rest of Europe.

In fact the United Kingdom, with 22 assigned grants, will hosts in their labs 60 research projects (since winners can choose the country where setting up their project). Considering that only two English researchers among the winners (9%) chose to take their project abroad, this means that the UK attracted 40 foreign young researchers. An authentic triumph. Everybody wants to do research in the UK!

On the contrary, Italy, with 17 assigned grants, will host only 8 of them. We managed to attract only one foreign researcher, whilst 10 (59%) of ours preferred moving abroad. A specular and opposite record to the English one: none, not even the Italian researchers, want to do research in Italy!

Why?

Before answering the question, it is worthy considering another clamorous performance. This year, the second place for absolute successes (the Italian’s place in 2008) went to the young Israeli researchers, with 34 grants! Israel is a small country if compared to the ERC (it has a population of 7.8 million of inhabitants, almost 8 times lower to the Italy), but boasts an impressive research system (impressive both for quality and quantity). And its performances clearly show that scientific research is not a luxury for big and rich countries only to afford, as many like to preach in Italy. Even more clamorous, then, is the fact that Israel will host 32 winners (31 Israeli and one foreign researcher). Israel came at the third place, behind the UK and Germany. Practically, no young Israeli decided to leave a Country where, outside the labs, life is surely not simple.

So, why do Italian young researchers leave Italy as soon as they got the opportunity?  It is not about money, clearly, because the Italian winners who decided to move abroad (10 out of 17) got the money for their research-project from the European Community. More than financial conditions, then, environmental quality (or its perception) does not hold on anymore. On the contrary, it is collapsing. In 2008, 13 out 35 Italian winners moved abroad: 38%. Now 10 out of 17 winners left: 59%.

So, why young and successful Italian researchers decide to leave their country, habits and loved ones and move abroad? There is no scientific investigation about the causes. However many indicate logistics and bureaucracy as the principal culprits. A researcher in Italy has less money as well as less research instruments, but the rich ERC grants allow buying the best available technologies. It is not about logistics, then, but about bureaucracy: omnipresent, suffocating and oppressive. In one word, suicidal.

A jungle of laws, rules, procedures, senseless taxation (foreign researchers, for example, cannot understand why they have to pay taxes on travel-expenses when they move to Italy) and a mountain of forms to fill. Who brings in people, money and innovations from abroad to an Italian University or Research Institute usually bumps against a rubber wall. It is a no-winning situation. Who has the possibility, leaves.  

Every other country (where “every” is not a hyperbole, since a recent investigation showed that only 4 nations out of 200 worldwide turn down foreign researchers more than Italy) does the opposite: red carpet for the scientists and minimum bureaucracy.

Here it is, then, an advice (not-required) for Maria Chiara Carrozza, the Italian Ministry of Education, University and Research, about the only possible and desirable zero-cost reform. Drastically cut down bureaucracy, laws and rules, procedures and norms. Make life easier for young Italian researchers (few but still good). Facilitate entrance and permanence for those foreign researchers that, nevertheless, would like to come to Italy. Do not allow them to be sent back at the border from a stupid, but ferocious, bureaucracy. The only bureaucracy on Earth which has not understood yet that a “brains’ war” is on. The winners will have more chances of building a desirable future. Not just in terms of culture and civilization, economically too.

Pietro Greco

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