Saturday, April 2, 2016

The lost identity of the Italian Research Community

“In a world led by the economy of knowledge a country that doesn’t invest in research has no future”. Those words of physicist  Giorgio Parisi summarise the motivations to open a petition Save the Italian Research, started with a Letter to Nature, that has reached almost seventy thousand signatures and is still growing. The initiatives that have been started after it have favored wide discussions on the topic and the analysis of several data sets. For more than half a century an ongoing narrative in Italy is targeting the internal academic and research system, emphasizing its faults, ignoring its merits and ridiculing its competences. The bare facts though, derived from statistical data, provide a different scenario. Are Italian researchers too many? Quite the contrary: only twenty five out of every ten thousand people are researchers from public or private institutions, about a half of the European average, compared to seventy in the UK. Perhaps they are unproductive? It doesn’t appear so. The Italian researcher has the highest productivity in the world, with 0.7 publications per year, against 0.5 in Canada and 0,4 in the UK, France and the USA. Maybe those publications lack relevance? Not at all. The Italian researcher has six citations per year, followed by the UK with 5, the USA, Germany and France with 4. How about the data on competitiveness? The Italian researcher attracts financial support from the EU at a rate fifty percent higher than the European average. But that’s no matter to celebrate and points exactly at the heart of the petition. The Italian government provides indeed massive support to the Research financial endowment of the European Community. The in and out balance, despite the country’s excellence, has a deficit of more than three hundred million Euro per year and is forecasted to double by 2020. What to do? First and foremost increase as of now the number of researchers, endowing them with the suitable support to compete on equal grounds with the other countries. This in turn would stop the hemorrhagic brain-drain which is particularly serious in Italy. The country has a structural inability to receive brain transfusion from abroad, unlike France, Germany, the UK and the USA. Italy must, basically, move away from its anaemic one percent of the GDP toward research, reach the average two percent in Europe and aim at the three percent as from the Barcelona agreement.
How to do it? This is perhaps the part of the analysis where the faults of the academic and research community emerge in their entirety. Italian scientists have become insensitive to a political chaste who, in the last thirty years, turned, from indifferent toward them, first into suspicious and later into openly hostile. The scientific community’s main fault is to have lost its own identity and to have fragmented in a bunch of isolated individuals. Instead of defending themselves together from the centralized resource cuts they prefer to remain silent in the coward hope to get a few crumbs for personal interest. The necessity of a National Science Agency has been pointed out decades ago. But instead of firmly requesting it, scientists show their weakness by aligning their will behind politicians who decide over their heads. The country and its development are drowned by anti-scientific movements, but the scientists are carelessly turning their heads somewhere else. They forget one of their paramount duty which is to provoke people’s consciences to think beyond biases, help them decide rationally rather than instinctively about vaccines, OGM, environment, gambling habits etc. In a country where the value of competence has been lost those who do have some are blameworthy silent.
It took the country main science journalist, Piero Angela, to encourage scientists of all generations to make themselves audible to the public and, especially, to the politicians without further hesitation. Education, training and research form the human capital of the country, build its culture and creativity which are its only important resources. Without them the country’s bel tempo or the other national treasures will not suffice to save its future.
Let us say it once more: Science is not only the adventure that follows a personal vocation. It is also a profession in a broad and encompassing sense like Max Weber explained about a century ago in its celebrated talk at Munich University. Science needs organisation together with structural and institutional support. Nowadays, after the growth that followed World War two, all that is either lacking or quickly disintegrating. Scientists, besides their strict scientific work, must invest some time in doing science at a broader level. They need to communicate science to everybody and show that laboratories are no houses to demons. They need to display science as an historical accumulation process where fundamental research is the pulsating heart. Moreover they need to fight those popular beliefs that are a threat for people’s safety. They need, finally, to be heard by politics. In periods like the current one politicians have refined a strategy which is the fingerprint of their culture and foresight: to cut where they don’t feel pain. Scientists must be heard by everybody, be mentors to their pupils also beyond their disciplines. Those young people that stick with the Italian shaky system are risking their entire and uncertain future not only their retirement funds.

From the Italian version published on Il Mulino

Pierluigi Contucci, March 31, 2016.