18 October 2005
The situation of scientific research in Italy
Italian Academy – Columbia University – New York
1. Science is power
Before tackling my topic directly, I would like to make a consideration about the role of scientific research in our times.
At the beginning of the Scientific Revolution, one of its founding fathers declared that scientia est potentia (science is power). Today we can fully appreciate the far-sightedness of this prediction. Over time, the way wealth was created has changed many times. In different periods men became rich in different ways: first by cultivating the soil, then by excavating it. Then by trading between themselves and with their neighbors. Later by transforming materials and more recently by manufacturing goods. However, the proliferation of scientific research and the resulting dramatic rise of technology has opened the way to an entirely new concept of the production wealth. Peoples become prosperous through creativity and invention. In particular, today, they become affluent not so much by satisfying needs through the use of instruments, but by anticipating needs by creating new instruments. The latest technological revolution, computers and the Internet, does not require huge financial resources but rather great intellectual capability. It is possible to generate more wealth in a garage than in a large factory.
In these circumstances, one of the greatest challenges modern States must confront is how to support and foster the best brains, how to encourage their open activity, how to further and develop research. It is not only a matter of investments. It is a problem of rules, education, attitude, and therefore culture. And not all cultures are the same. Take the case of universities.
Ever since its inception, all over the world, scientific research has traditionally and generally been entrusted to universities and related institutions. However, the university may be conceived of in different ways and by sticking to various principles. If an egalitarian code is adopted, university education becomes a right and it must be accessible to all. If we choose merit instead, higher education becomes an entitlement that only a few deserve. The first principle leads to an increase in the general level of education, whereas the second leads to the selection of some who are considered the best when measured against shared standards. On this issue, American culture and most of European culture diverge. Across most of Europe, university is a place for educating citizens, while in America it is first and foremost a training ground for the intellectual aristocracy. And I will add a further difference. In Europe, the university is the main ground for scientific research, while in America independent research centers have the leading edge.
It is not my intention here to say which model is preferable or why. However, it should be noted that the major American universities and research institutes are considered better than their key European counterparts, and that in this regard there is a gap between the two shores of the Atlantic. This brings me to the Italian situation.
2. More light and shade
Most of the evidence is indeed positive. According to a survey published in Nature by David A. King, scientific advisor to the British government, the Italian share of total world publications rose from 3.67% in 1993-1997 to 4.05% in 1997-2001. The share of citations versus the world total rose from 3.71 to 4.39%. The share of most cited articles rose from 3.32 to 4.31%. Italian scientific productivity ranks third in terms of number of publications per researcher and third for number of citations. No other country in the world is doing better, except Japan, which has a higher share of most cited articles.
However, we cannot conceal the shady side. For instance, the fact that the percentage of Italian researchers against the active population is 0.33, about half the figures for France (0.61), Germany (0.61) and the UK (0.55). Or that the percentage of GDP invested in university training amounts to 0.63, much less than in France (1.13), Germany (1.04) and the UK (1.11).
Another unpromising factor is the low rate of PhD graduates. The Italian university system invests less in graduate students than in undergraduates, that is, less in specialist research than in teaching. This seems to confirm the predominance of a culture of equality to which I referred earlier. Even the ratio between public and private researchers is not positive if compared with other countries. In Italy the number and percentage of the former is higher than that of the latter. This means that our economic system, mainly because of the size of our corporations, has yet to achieve a comparable level of investments in study and research other countries enjoy.
I can go on mentioning further negative evidence: the weakness of the structures, public funding aligned with the number of students, and too strict procedures for recruiting university professors. In our system it is common practice to obtain your degree in one university, start your academic career in the same academia and complete it without ever moving one inch. Moreover, promotion tends to be based on seniority rather than selection. This is an alarming aspect as it suggests that the entire working life of a teacher is often restricted to the same environment, with little mobility and therefore little motivation for improvement.
What is the overall picture that comes to light? On the positive side, it is true that Italian researchers are highly productive and have high scientific quality. This means that our research ranks high up on the international scale, that it is competitive, and that Italy can cope with the challenge of post-modernity. This is the most heartening aspect of the situation. Not even in the field of research is Italy a marginal country. Indeed it shows a good capacity to adapt to a new setting and of responding to new requirements or needs.
On the negative side, we must accept that there is still work to be done. Our research system is still mainly focused on support from the public administration, which employs the majority of researchers and provides most, if not all, of allotted resources. Moreover, our system shows limited flexibility, which entails poor competition among universities and research institutes. The automatic career progression of professors and a funding system based simply on the number of students account for this situation. In short, Italian research is excellent and is gradually evolving in a positive direction. It is my opinion that the latest measures taken by the government will further encourage this trend. Let me examine the main ones.
3. The recent reforms
The most significant step forward is the tangible implementation of the notion of autonomy of the individual universities. If universities are not allowed to find their own sources of funding and select their own staff; if they cannot start being assessed and funded by the State not simply over the criteria of how many students they have, but according to the teaching and research results obtained; in other words, if universities are not put in the condition to compete, what kind of autonomy are we talking about? The Berlusconi government’s reforms that bear the signature of Minister Moratti are indeed a step in this direction.
Autonomy has been boosted above all through a new system of recruitment whereby priority is given to the open selection of teaching staff by individual campuses after an assessment of their suitability at the national level. Selecting means being responsible, and responsibility entails costs and benefits. From this point of view, another very useful measure taken is that of setting up a national evaluation body to reward the best universities and to penalize those that do not spend their money wisely. This is definitely an innovative measure that represents an absolute novelty compared to previous practice: it is as though academies had gained access to a market in which good products yield greater profits to those who produce them.
Another measure that will bear fruit is that of allowing privately funded universities, which in turn will not only be able to attract private assets but will be geared to bringing the business world closer to academia. Another step in the right direction is the increased public resources introduced into the system and the reform of the research institutions.
Lastly, a core of research and teaching centers has been set up on the model of Anglo-Saxon graduate schools. Several of these, notably the IMT School at Lucca, have an original status hitherto never tested in Italy. Several universities have joined forces in a consortium, have pooled groups of their own best professors and have signed up Italian and foreign university professors for the purpose of offering highly specialized research programs. The State contributes half of the resources, private investors the other half. Tuition-free is free for those who are admitted: the students receive room and board and all other facilities so that they can live independently within the community. The experiment, launched recently, is already bearing unexpectedly good results, with large numbers of students applying from abroad.
In brief, unlike what happened up to a short time ago, the Italian university is a growing workshop undergoing constant and rapid changes. The innovations introduced will take time to display their full potential. But what is important to stress is the new attention that Minister Moratti and the government reserve to this crucial issue, and the increasingly widespread belief among political and civil circles that scientific research is one of the main pivots on which the country’s growth very much depends. This is an important change in outlook and culture.
4. A new atmosphere
Today in Italy we feel that the environment has changed. For years, an ideological view of the role of the university prevailed. Higher education was implicitly accepted as one of the many welfare policies. The drawbacks were evident: the taxes paid by everyone were used to pay university fees even for those who did not need this economic assistance.
The main reforms, those of a minister of the political center like Zecchino or of the political left like Berlinguer, always ran into a series of no-s. Fortunately, the situation is now changing. In our political circles, the relationship between research and competitive capability, between scientia and potentia , as Lord Bacon said, is increasingly being acknowledged. In our university circles, the protests against Minister Letizia Moratti are no longer supported by those working in the field. Several professors have actually become interpreters of the innovations, and an appeal has been launched that circulates in newspapers or on websites. In barely a few weeks nearly three thousand university professors signatures were collected. Change is under way; in my view, it is going in the right direction and can no longer be stopped.