A remedy via research?
26 April 2012
As the new cabinet endeavours to restore the economy, Public Service Review assesses how Italy's science community can provide a welcome boost in the face of funding constraints
The second half of 2011 saw the Italian government in turmoil. Exacerbated by its high level of sovereign debt, Italy was, and remains, alongside Greece at the centre of the crisis rocking the European Monetary Union. With an economy at the brink, many blamed the political leadership of Silvio Berlusconi and his cabinet for fuelling anxiety in the market with potentially catastrophic consequences for Italy, the euro and global growth. Eventually, on 12th November the man known as 'Il Cavaliere' – 'the Knight' – tendered his resignation.
In stepped former EU Commissioner Mario Monti as Italy's 54th Prime Minister. Dubbed 'Super Mario' by the world's media, Monti appointed a 'technocratic' cabinet consisting entirely of unelected professionals in the hope of getting Italy back on an even keel. Following talks with political leaders in the Camera dei Deputati and the Senato, Monti's cabinet will serve until the next scheduled elections in 2013.
One of Monti's crucial cabinet appointments was for the top job at the Ministry for Education, Universities and Research. After just three months heading up Italy's National Research Council (CNR), Francesco Profumo was selected for the task. Despite only fleeting experience at the CNR, Profumo fits perfectly into the technocrat category. From the late 1970s to mid-1980s, Profumo worked in R&D for Ansaldo, a major player in the Italian energy industry. The rest of Profumo's career outside of government was spent as an academic at the Politecnico di Torino, the nation's top-ranked university.
Profumo has published over 200 papers and articles in technical journals on an impressive range of engineering research interests, including power electronics conversion, high power devices, integrated electronic/electromechanical design, high response speed servo drives, new electrical machine structures, and power conditioning systems for fuel cells applications. At the same time, between 1984 and 2005, Profumo rose from Associate Professor to become Chancellor of the university, a post held until shortly before his appointment to government.1
Given the new Minister of Education's research pedigree and experience of leadership within the university sector, it is perhaps no surprise that the science community has reacted kindly to his appointment. "He has a deep knowledge of university, research and industry," said Adriano De Maio, President of the European Centre for Nanomedicine in Milan. "I am sure he has the right skills to try, at least, to reform a system that is craving a fair evaluation and recruitment based on merit." 2
A fellow senior health academic, Elena Cattaneo, Director of the Centre for Stem Cell Research at the University of Milan, was equally complimentary: "He has proven to be able to recognise, promote and evaluate the quality of research."3
That praise, however, has not made Profumo's early challenges as a minister any easier to handle. An initial fire-fighting exercise has surrounded the Presidency of the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology (INGV), the body responsible for tracking earthquake activity and coordinating the study of geophysical phenomena. The incumbent, seismologist Domenico Giardini, was one of a number of academics appointed last August by Profumo's predecessor Mariastella Gelmini to inject a new lease of life into Italy's research institutes.
Just before the New Year, Giardini had threatened to resign, allegedly due to a row over the extent of his salary; the union newspaper Il Foglietto reported that the Ministry of Public Administration had vetoed Profumo's attempts to enhance Giardini's €100,000 annual wage. Not wanting to live-down his reputation as a fixer, the new Education Minister reportedly made some calls to officials at the Sapienza University of Rome in order to create an additional part-time job and income boost for Giardini. Whether the settlement arranged by Profumo will keep Giardini in post is yet to be confirmed, but for now the INGV boss has reeled back from an immediate resignation.4
Despite day-to-day hurdles such as these, the major challenge for Profumo is reforming the research environment in Italy. Some scientists have complained about an 'epidemic of politics' plaguing all disciplines and creating 'an Italian nightmare'.5
Beyond interference from politicians, the church and interest groups, Profumo is entering an impoverished ministry. Only 1.1% of GDP in Italy is reinvested in R&D, behind all the other G8 countries with the exception of Russia.6
The overarching aim of the entire Monti cabinet is to try and restore the ailing Italian economy. A wealth of research, brought together a decade ago by the Institute of Fiscal Studies, has demonstrated that investment in R&D is crucial for creating growth and increasing human capital. 7
The level of funding dedicated to research and development in Italy is clearly deficient and damaging the nation's competitiveness. However, the Monti cabinet is committed to reducing sovereign debt, which, in turn, means austerity measures – leaving Profumo in a quandary. How can Italy's science community provide a shot in the arm for the national economy while dealing with an incredibly tight funding regime? The clock is ticking while Profumo figures out this conundrum. 1