Italy: restoring axed funds is not enough to cure all ills

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Sir

The Italian government's proposed diversion of funds from scientific research to help boost the economy — discussed in your Editorial 'Cut-throat savings' (Nature 455, 835–836; 2008) — is lamentable. According to various independent surveys based on ISI Web of Science data, Italy's research productivity is already low and excellence is the exception rather than the rule.

One problem is stagnation. All Italy's universities are treated as equals and all academic staff are comparably paid. They jointly decide on all recruitment and promotion: if a position is available in an Italian zoology department, all the zoology professors will elect a commission that decides who shall take the post.

Another problem is that research resources are taken up by academics who only teach, rather than doing internationally recognized research. All have to teach 250 hours a year — fine if they are also doing research, but ridiculous if that is all they do. This may explain why it is hard to ascertain who just teaches and who (a numerous minority, but still a minority) does both teaching and research. It also explains why there is a marked resistance to the evaluation of scientific output, particularly from the unproductive areas. In the rare cases where evaluation is carried out, this is done entirely on impact factors, driving disciplines such as taxonomy towards extinction. (Paradoxically, Italian taxonomy is of international standard.)

The government may hope to create a new system in which teaching-only universities or departments, with no doctorate curriculum or research labs, are distinct from universities or departments that do both teaching and research. This idea has been discussed, but it would be risky and, knowing Italy, unlikely to be carried out effectively.

Restored funding alone would not be enough: we need to specify what we want for our university system. If the majority only teach, and their interests prevail in the allocation of resources, those who do both teaching and research will be the losers — along with Italy's research productivity.

Our brightest young postdocs leave for other countries because Italy holds no future for them. Money would be better spent on educating them if we then gave them the chance to work productively here.

See also Italy: 'draconian' new law galvanizes demonstrations

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Boero, F. Italy: restoring axed funds is not enough to cure all ills. Nature 456, 166 (2008) doi:10.1038/456166b

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