Italy's Science Minister Is Betting on Europe

17 August 2012 11:40 am

Ministry of Education, Universities, and Research

Fair share. Francesco Profumo wants Italy to perform better in the competition for E.U. money.

ROME—Last month, the Italian government angered many scientists by announcing a series of deep cuts in the budgets of state institutes as part of a broader austerity package. ScienceInsider talked to Francesco Profumo, who, as minister of education, universities, and research in Italy's 'technocratic' government, will have to implement those cuts.

Profumo, 59, is an engineer who was widely praised for the reforms he enacted as rector of the Polytechnic University of Turin, one of Italy's top universities, between 2005 and 2011. Before accepting the appointment as minister, he served as the president of the National Research Council for 3 months. Questions and answers have been translated from Italian and edited for clarity and brevity.

Q: The budget cuts announced last month will hit 12 state-funded institutes hard and have caused a great deal of commotion. Won't they harm Italian science?

F.P.: First of all, let's stop calling them cuts. I prefer to use the term "spending reviews!"

Since the announcement, the first €30 million in austerity measures, which would have affected national research institutes in 2012, has been canceled through an amendment in the Senate. Also, I have met with the heads of the targeted institutes, and together we agreed to plan a concerted path to share the sacrifices among the various institutes. In September, we will meet again to start a process to decide where to intervene.

Our ministry needs to make a contribution for the country, which is facing serious economic troubles. I think the effects of this spending review for research are tolerable, if you take into consideration that the ministry's total research funds are €7 billion. But we need to determine which research institutes can make the biggest contributions. And we must reconsider the models of research management in our country and aim for greater efficiency.

I also want to allow our research bodies to be able to obtain more European funds. I will never tire of repeating that for every euro Italy invests in the European research pot, our country takes back only 60 cents. What strikes me is that there isn't more indignation about this. This is money coming from taxpayers' pockets, after all.

Q: So you hope Italy can secure more E.U. money?

F.P.: Yes, my biggest bet will be on Europe. Horizon 2020, the new European research funding scheme, will ultimately provide €80 billion. Its scope is still under debate, and we should use this period to train Italian researchers so that they will be able to compete when it starts in 2014.

We contributed 15% to the cost of Framework Programme 7, the predecessor to Horizon 2020, but we received only 8.5% of the funding in return—in other words, we lost about €500 million per year. Those are worrisome data. Our contribution to Horizon 2020 will be about €1.7 billion per year. If we don't increase our participation rate, we risk losing between €800 million and €900 million per year. The key to winning is not necessarily to submit more proposals, but a substantial effort to improve the quality of Italian proposals.

Q: Italian governments often seem to see research as a financial burden rather than an investment. Science and innovation have never been priorities. Will that change?

F.P.: I believe that will change dramatically because of Europe. It's difficult to change the Italian attitude toward science from within. But forces from outside will change the trend. I am confident that Italy will once again play a leading role in Europe—including in the scientific area. Let's not forget that Italy is one of the founder countries of the E.U.

Q: Italy's private sector invests very little in research—between 0.4% and 0.5% of GDP, compared to the European average of 1.2%. What's keeping them from contributing more?

F.P.: The culture really isn't there in Italian industry. No government has ever motivated them to invest in research—for instance, by introducing tax breaks. I'd like to do that, but it's an expensive proposition. I hope the country will enter a phase of greater economic and political stability so that we can provide tax breaks.

At the same time, researchers are not doing enough to publish their results and make them visible and understandable. Communication has to improve in this respect. Companies could also invest in the universities to help train the people that they might need in the future; that would save them money spent on training and development later on.

Q: Your reform of the Research Projects of National Interest (PRIN), the main source of public funding for research projects, has come under fire. Critics say the new rules favor big, multiuniversity projects and hurt smaller groups working at the cutting edge. How do you respond?

F.P.: That has to do with Europe as well. Our position in Italy is getting weaker and weaker, both in terms of research and funds. Some of the newer members of the E.U. are quite competitive. We must change gears. Our excellent researchers often lack cohesion and they have difficulty transforming the qualities of single scientists into an organic project.

I believe that there is a need to create critical mass. That's what we hope to achieve with PRIN. Scientists should change attitude and become more generous, sharing ideas and projects, especially during the grim times Italy is now facing.

Q: The national research evaluation agency is now working on its first reviews. How will they be used?

F.P.: The agency will wrap up its first evaluation in June 2013. Italy has not adequately rewarded its best-performing research so far. It is true that the system needs more money, but that money must be linked to performance. For the first time, peer review evaluation and bibliometric indicators, such as the h-index, will be used. Originality, innovation, and competitiveness will be also key parameters.

Q: You want to increase the number of courses taught in English at the master's level. Why?

F.P.: We face a historical moment where more than ever we deal with cultural confrontation. I love diversity because I believe that it brings new stimuli, energy, and creativity. Attracting foreigners can be a stimulus for our students and for professors, too. English is the common language that needs to be mastered in order to become part of the global community.

I am also collaborating closely with the Italian Ministry of the Interior to set up offices within universities to arrange residence permits and Social Security numbers for foreign students. I dream about foreign students studying and growing professionally in our country.

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