Italian election leaves science out in the cold

Researchers hold out little hope that the next government will improve their underfunded research system.

Luigi Di Maio leads the populist Five Star Movement, which is tipped to receive the highest number of votes in Italy’s March election.Ivan Romano/Getty

As campaigning ahead of Italy’s national election enters its final weeks, researchers in the country fear that budget cuts and declining interest in science will only continue — whatever the outcome of the vote on 4 March.

A complex coalition government is likely to emerge. The country’s traditional centre-left and centre-right parties have splintered, and myriad small parties make up the ballot sheet, as well as the populist Five Star Movement. Topics such as immigration, the refugee influx and eurozone membership have dominated mainstream debates.

But, apart from a battle over the nation’s compulsory vaccination programme, which was introduced last year, science has featured little in the campaigning — even as economists warn that Italy’s research system is in a precarious state. “We are on the verge of collapse,” says Mario Pianta, an economist at the University of Rome Tre, who helps to prepare Italy’s statistics on research and development (R&D) for the European Commission.

Italy has hotspots of scientific excellence, such as in particle physics and biomedicine. But, unlike many other European countries, it has failed to modernize its science system in the past few decades. Budgets have constantly been low. Academic hiring practices can be complicated, and bureaucracy crippling, many scientists say. Research organizations have had little power politically, and have been unable to stem the rising influence of those who have demonized vaccinations and promoted charlatan cure-alls. The gap in scientific achievement and investment between the country’s wealthy north and poorer south is widening, helping to fuel regionalist and populist politics, says Raffaella Rumiati, vice-president of Italy’s national research-evaluation agency, ANVUR. In January, the agency announced the results of its first competition to reward the best-performing university departments, and northern institutions received an overwhelming share of the funds.


The outgoing centre-left coalition government, led by Paolo Gentiloni of the Democratic Party, has introduced some research initiatives including the launch of a €1.5-billion (US$1.9-billion) research centre in Milan focused on genomics and personalized medicine, called the Human Technopole. The Democratic Party has some science-related policies in its manifesto that promise more money, research positions and institutional competition.

Pianta says that further reforms to the research system must be supported by increased budgets. But since the 2008 economic crisis, Italy’s already low R&D spending has declined by 20% in real terms — a hefty €1.2 billion. In 2016, it stood at €8.7 billion (see ‘Efficient science’). The university budget has shrunk by about one-fifth — to €7 billion — as has the number of professors nationwide. Funding for public research institutes is no higher than it was in 2008, representing a 9% drop in real terms. And Italy’s substantial deficit means the situation is unlikely to improve soon.

Credit: EUROSTAT (R&D spending); SCOPUS (citations).

Even worse, more scientists have left the country since 2008 than have entered it, according to statistics from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. “It is not just that scientists are going to countries with strong bases in science,” says Pianta. “There is also a net loss of scientists from Italy to countries like Spain.”

Paradoxically, science is performing well overall. Since 2005, Italy has increased its contribution to the world’s 10% most cited scientific documents. And it produces out more publications per unit of R&D expenditure than any other European Union country except the United Kingdom. “The happy paradox cannot sustain,” says Pianta. “We are heading towards mediocrity.”

Anti-science fears

The next government will have its work cut out. Polls suggest that the Five Star Movement, founded by comedian Beppe Grillo and led by Luigi Di Maio, will receive the highest number of votes. Di Maio has actively wooed academics, bringing some on board as advisers. Five Star, which began as a lose populist movement, is now developing into a more cohesive political party, although its members express a wide range of opinions.

Its election platform says the movement would revise the evaluation system, increase research funding and establish a dedicated agency for distributing research money. But most researchers regard the movement with alarm. Some of its members have vociferously supported anti-science campaigns, including that against vaccination. (Marco Bella, a chemist at the University of Rome La Sapienza who is standing as a Five Star candidate, says that all parties have their extremists, and that most members of the movement now favour vaccination.)

Many scientists see Italy’s growing anti-vaccination sentiment as one of the most worrying developments of the past few years, particularly since the government made 10 vaccinations compulsory for schoolchildren last July. Italian engineer Mattia Butta, who is at the Czech Technical University in Prague, was so tired of the anti-science rhetoric in his home country that he founded a pro-science political party last year. “I wanted scientific method to enter parliament,” he says. His party, W la Fisica, failed to muster enough support to get on the electoral list. But another single-issue party campaigning against vaccination, called SiAmo, did.

The Five Star Movement is unlikely to take part in any governing coalition. So the most likely government to emerge will be a mix of centre-right parties led by Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, and including the regionalist League, which is expected to receive the second highest number of votes. (Berlusconi cannot stand for parliament or become prime minister again because of a fraud conviction.) This grouping has said little concrete about science, although Forza Italia has drawn in candidates from a small party opposed to animal research that didn’t make the electoral list.

Such a centre-right coalition might win enough seats to form a government. If not, it may form a broader coalition with the Democratic Party. But whatever the content of the next government, says Butta, it is unlikely to fundamentally change the scientific culture.

Nature 554, 411-412 (2018)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-02223-7
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Updates & Corrections

  • Clarification 23 February 2018: The original version of the graphic’s top panel did not give full units for the y-axis. This has been updated.