Leggi in italiano

The Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte (left) and the Minister for University and Research Gaetano Manfredi during a Senate session in October 2020. Credit: Independent Photo Agency Srl/Alamy Stock Photo.

The Italian Council of Ministers has approved the ‘Next Generation Italia’ national recovery and resilience plan (PNRR). The document describes how the government plans to use funds from ‘Next Generation EU’, the recovery initiative set out by the European Commission in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Out of €209 billion that Italy will receive from the European Union, €11.7 billion has been allocated for research, to be spent over five years. The investment plans are described in a section called ‘From Research to Enterprise’, with two main lines of action: the first, funded with €7.29 billion, is ‘research and development’, and includes support to research projects, grants to young investigators, funding for research infrastructures. The second, that receives €4.48 billion, is ‘technology transfer and innovation’, and aims to support the creation of new centres for applied research, as well PhD programmes tailored to industry needs.

Gaetano Manfredi, the Minister of University and Research, says he is satisfied with the result after previous drafts of the document allocated less than €9 billion to research and development. Manfredi also says that additional national funds will bring the total investment to more than € 14 billion. Scientists contacted by Nature Italy welcome the increase in funding, but note the emphasis on applied and industrial research in the document, and fear that basic research will be overlooked. Manfredi assures the sector that basic research will also be supported, as it is “instrumental for the development and the transfer of technology into industries and society”.

In Italy, public investments in research and development amount to 0.5% of GDP (0.32% for basic research and 0.18% for applied research), far behind other European countries. Italian scientists saw ‘Next Generation EU' as an opportunity to catch up, and have been watching closely as the document progressed from one draft to the next. Last October, and again at the beginning of January, a group of high-profile scientists wrote to Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte recommending the use of European funds to increase the budget for public research by €15 billion over the next five years. Their appeal was largely based on a document by Ugo Amaldi, a former CERN physicist and professor at Università di Milano-Bicocca, who suggested that Italy should respond to the pandemic by increasing research funding up to 1.1% of GDP by 2026, and by prioritizing basic research.

“The final draft is better than the previous ones because it mentions the Piano Amaldi,” says Federico Ronchetti, a researcher at the Istituto Nazionale di Fisica Nucleare and head of operations of the ALICE Experiment at CERN, who promoted an online petition in support of that plan. “But the structure of the document is still cumbersome and lacks detail.”

The PNRR injects €950 million to the existing Research Projects of National Relevance (Prin), the main funding mechanism for three-year research projects, and adds €600 million for new grants for young investigators, similar to those of the European Research Council. “These grants are in line with spirit of Next Generation EU” says Alberto Mantovani scientific director of the Humanitas Research Hospital in Milan. But in addition to more and regular calls, he says Italian research needs competitive measurement and mechanisms to evaluate proposals, an issue that is never mentioned in the plan. “A solid peer review system should be at the basis of each point of the PNRR” he says.

For technology transfer, the government aims to use €1.3 billion to create 20 regional innovation hubs for research and development, jointly funded by the public and private sectors and modelled after the Fraunhofer institutes for applied research in Germany. “We definitely need a way to speed up technology transfer and we will start from the existing strengths and realities of each region” explains Manfredi. But according to Elisabetta Cerbai, a pharmacologist and professor at Università di Firenze, it is not clear enough how these centres will be set up.

Another €1.6 billion will be used to launch seven new centres on key technologies: artificial intelligence, quantum computing, agricultural technology, energy, hydrogen, technologies for finance and pharmaceutical research. Half of them are expected to be in southern Italy. “In order to boost Italian competitiveness, the real bet is on the south,” says Luciano Pietronero, a statistical physicist and president of Centro Fermi in Rome who develops models of economic growth, and who would like to see the same logic applied to the whole plan. Northern Italy, he says, is already highly competitive and its excellence must be maintained, but the whole country can only grow if the south progresses. The Rector of Università Federico II of Naples, Matteo Lorito is involved in the design of the Agritech hub in Naples — one the seven centres listed in the document — and welcomes the opportunity to work with industry on sustainability and biodiversity. “Technological innovations often remain closed in laboratories, while they should be transferred to local startup and industries,” he says.

The PNRR must now be discussed and approved by the Italian Parliament, before being sent by 30 April to the European Commission.