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Italy is squeezing out wet biology research

University of Bologna Alma Mater Studiorum, Italy.
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Italy’s wet biology research is in sharp decline, thanks to scarce funding and stifling bureaucracy. These forces are driving young scientists away from the laboratory bench and out of academia.

Basic experimental-biology research has been viewed as a bad bet by Italian funding agencies over the past couple of decades. The situation is made worse by anti-corruption rules introduced last year by the government. These further complicate the already cumbersome administration procedures of public institutions. It can take weeks or even months to acquire a chemical reagent or a piece of equipment.

To boost their research credentials and improve their career opportunities, Italian biologists are therefore abandoning mechanistic bench research in favour of in silico investigations. These generate data rapidly and do not require expensive laboratory equipment or compliance with a tangle of safety regulations.

We need to reverse the situation so that future Italian governments want to invest in basic research. Although it is encouraging that the former Italian government earmarked a generous sum of €391 million (US$456 million) for its 2017 3-year Research Projects of Relevant National Interest, this is currently a one-off investment that could be discontinued by future governments.

Expanding research-evaluation criteria from citation counting would help — for example, by including the intellectual property of a scientific work, its actual impact within a specific scientific community and the novelty of experimental approaches that maximize meaningful output.

Nature 559, 32 (2018)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-05610-2
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