Last autumn, Romano Prodi, a candidate for Italian prime minister, proposed a thought experiment to a group of top scientists. “If you had an additional €400 million (US$480 million) a year for five years to rescue Italian research, to be allocated during the first 100 days of government, what would you do with it?” he asked.

Prodi had summoned 20 or so scientists to his Fabbrica, a think-tank housed in Bologna where he has been developing his government platform.

The short answer came fast: “We would double the number of researchers.” Italy's research force is currently half the size of comparably large, rich countries. The longer answer comprised a ten-page document published last December, which lists the many problems with Italy's underperforming research sector, and how they might be tackled. The bottom line: too much bureaucratic incompetence and an unreasonable demand for immediate returns, as well as too little money and meritocracy.

The conclusions won't surprise most Italian scientists. “Physicists have developed a theory for chaos, but Italy is now running an experiment in chaos,” comments Carlo Rubbia, a 1984 physics Nobel laureate and, until last year, president of the Italian energy and environmental agency ENEA.

But the document proposes how to bring order. Its concerns and recommendations are now feeding back into detailed action plans for a government science programme that can be agreed by all nine parties of Prodi's centre-left Olive Tree coalition.

Mathematician Luciano Modica is a former head of the Conference of Italian University Rectors (an association of university chiefs), and now a member of Prodi's union. He says, for example, that the document's proposal for an independent authority to evaluate research done in all publicly funded research institutes and universities is now a central concept in the proposed government programme. “It would eliminate the unfair and inefficient elements in the Italian academic system,” he says.

The situation wasn’t good before, but the Berlusconi government made it much worse.

The scientists summoned by Prodi, none of whom is affiliated to a political party, argue that the problems have been there for decades, but have worsened in the past four years of Silvio Berlusconi's rule. The government has reduced Italy's scarce science funds for basic research, they say, and oriented the sector to applied research. Berlusconi's centre-right coalition has not issued formal statements about science in the run up to the elections next month, but sources close to Berlusconi indicate a continuation of this philosophy.

Uphill struggle

“The situation wasn't good before, but the Berlusconi government made it much worse,” says Giorgio Parisi, a theoretical physicist at the University of Rome, ‘La Sapienza’. “Perhaps the worst thing that has happened has been damage to the research agencies,” adds Massimo Inguscio, an atomic physicist at the University of Florence. He says a series of much needed but failed reorganization attempts over the past decade have left agencies like the National Research Council (CNR) and the National Institute for the Physics of Matter with unclear sets of rules, imposing a culture of extreme uncertainty, “which is not supportive of free research”.

Others have openly criticized Berlusconi's set of politically appointed agency heads as scientific lightweights, who lack the charisma needed to defend the Italian tradition of research (see ‘Careless with the truth’).