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Row over proposed Italian biomedical centre intensifies

Document submitted to the Italian Senate criticizes institute that will oversee a €1.5-billion project.

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Neuroscientist Elena Cattaneo has made complaints about the Human Technopole to the Senate.

A plan to create a €1.5-billion (US$1.7-billion) centre for biomedical and nutritional research has been causing rifts between Italian scientists ever since Prime Minister Matteo Renzi announced it last November. Now the row has escalated, courtesy of a 48-page document submitted to the Italian Senate on 4 May by Senator Elena Cattaneo, who is also a neuroscientist at the University of Milan.

In the document, she complains that the idea for the centre, called the Human Technopole, was conceived by a small group of scientists behind closed doors, and that the large sum of money involved should not be concentrated in a single project, in particular because Italy’s research community as a whole has been starved of funds for years.

“To allocate money in this way without discussion of ideas corrupts the ethics of science,” Cattaneo told Nature.

That sentiment is in line with arguments already made by Cattaneo and others. Cattaneo’s report also lists a series of complaints against the Italian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Genoa, which Renzi has designated to oversee the Technopole project.

The complaints against both institutes are “entirely political”, says Roberto Cingolani, who is the Technopole’s main architect and director of the IIT. He designed the Technopole concept together with scientists from various universities and research institutes in Milan, and now plans to submit a detailed rebuttal of Cattaneo’s document to the parliament.

Like the IIT, the Human Technopole was approved by government decree, and, although supported with public money, will be a private foundation. As such, it will avoid much of the red tape that holds back state universities and publicly funded research institutes.

According to Cingolani’s plan, the Technopole will focus on genomics and personalized medicine, with an emphasis on nutrition, cancer and neuro­degenerative diseases. The plan is now being evaluated by a panel of international scientists.

But many researchers are incensed that the project was announced without an open call for ideas. “The evaluators should have had the opportunity to compare different proposals,” says astrophysicist Giovanni Bignami, former director of the Rome-based National Institute for Astrophysics.

Earlier this year, physicist Giorgio Parisi at the Sapienza University of Rome initiated a petition, now signed by more than 72,000  people, arguing for Italy to invest more in research. But even he takes issue with the way in which the cash is to be doled out. “An investment of this magnitude should have involved the whole scientific community, and different projects should have been compared,” he says.

“An investment of this magnitude should have involved the whole scientific community.”

Supporters of the Technopole say that what matters is the progress of Italian science, not the specifics of how the project was chosen, and that the government is within its rights to set up such a centre by decree. It is “nothing unusual for a government to set science policy”, says neuroscientist Emilio Bizzi at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and a member of the IIT scientific advisory board.

Cattaneo’s report also questions the choice of the IIT to coordinate the Technopole project. She notes that although the IIT is rated top among the country’s institutes for nanotechnology when measured by the impact of its publications, it is not in the top five for the life sciences or biomedicine, which are the subjects that will be the focus of the Technopole.

She cites a news­paper article from 6 January that reported that the IIT had not spent all of the money it received in 2013, and raised the issue of why the executive had not turned down the payments if it was not going to use them, so that they could be used by other research institutes. And Cattaneo’s report says that, according to the IIT’s internal regulations, the institute appoints members of a national committee to evaluate the institute’s progress, without the oversight of an external body.

Cingolani refutes all of these criticisms. He says that there are many ways to measure scientific success, and accuses Cattaneo of cherry-picking the facts to fit her argument. He points out that any money that the IIT doesn’t spend gets returned to the state. And he says that the IIT undergoes many levels of evaluations and that all are carried out according to best practice. “I am preparing my rebuttal line by line, point by point,” he told Nature.

Parliament has yet to decide on whether to debate the issues raised by Cattaneo’s sub­mission. But the ongoing public discussion is fuelling calls for Italy to reform how it funds research.

It is one of the few countries in the European Union without a national research agency, and in a Correspondence in this week’s Nature, 15 Italian members of Europe’s life-sciences organization EMBO emphasize the need for such an agency, to provide “transparent jurisdiction over the funding and execution of research”. “The agency,” the scientists add, “would also monitor the progress of the Human Technopole and oversee its accountability.”

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