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Forced abroad: why Italian researchers migrate

Leggi in italiano

Credits: Laura Lezza/Getty Images.

Pessimism about career prospects and poor working conditions are the main reasons Italian researchers migrate abroad, an analysis in Science and Public Policy shows. The study1 estimates that Italy has seen 14,000 researchers migrate since the beginning of the 2008 financial crisis, when the Italian research budget was hit by large cuts only partially reversed after 2015. In order to look at the actual factors explaining that loss, the authors relied on data from MORE3 (Mobility Patterns and Career Paths of EU Researchers), a survey on international research mobility funded by the European Commission.

The authors extracted a subset of the MORE3 database to compare a group of Italian researchers working in Italy with a group of Italian researchers working abroad, and then to compare Italian and non-Italian researchers working in Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg (the four countries hosting the largest number of Italian researchers in the MORE 3 sample).

Almost half of researchers (and three PhD candidates out of four) in Italy say that they are paid badly or just enough to make ends meet, compared to 15% of Italian researchers working abroad (and one in ten PhD candidates). Lack of transparency in hiring methods also influences what the authors call “forced mobility”. Recruitment in the home institution is considered transparent and merit-based by 57% of researchers in Italy and 80% of those abroad. Italian researchers working abroad are twice more likely to be confident about their career prospects than those still in Italy.

These are not the typical drivers of international mobility, the study notes: researchers migrate from other countries too, but mostly to build a professional network, to increase research productivity and to accelerate career advancement.

Italian scientists living abroad contacted by Nature Italy recognize themselves in this picture. Astrophysicist, Valentina Tamburello, moved from Turin to the University of Zurich in 2013 for her PhD: “In Turin all PhD positions were ‘pre-assigned’ to students of nuclear physics, and paid around €1,000 per month, while in Zurich I was given an initial salary of 3800 francs (€3,430),” she says. After defending the PhD, she was offered a contract as a postdoc: “I would love to move back to Italy, but it would mean one or two career steps back,” she added.

When her supervisor encouraged her to apply for a PhD both at the University of Utrecht, in the Netherlands, and at the University of Chieti where she had just graduated, geoscientist Vittoria Lauretano had two “opposite” experiences: “For the position in Utrecht I had two interviews, one of which in person, paid for by the University, while for the one in Chieti I took part in a public call (concorso pubblico) even though the places were rumored to be pre-assigned”. She went to the Netherlands because of the better pay, more independence and more opportunities to sign papers as first author, she says. She never considered moving back to Italy, and currently works as a postdoc at the University of Bristol, in the UK.

Many Italian researchers move abroad after getting a PhD degree in Italy. Dimitris Spiliotopoulos was completing his PhD in cellular and molecular biology in Milan when he was invited to a postdoc position at the University of Zurich, in 2013. Now he is the scientific director of a biotech company near Basel, and doesn’t plan to move back to Italy: “Almost all my friends who went back to Italy following one of the government initiatives were disappointed,” he says.

Several initiatives to promote the return of Italian researchers were introduced since 2015, with a total of €30 million allocated. A new path was created for Universities to hire ERC grantees as associate professors, and a tax-reductions scheme was introduced for returning professionals. “What was accomplished so far is like a drop in an ocean” says Mario Pianta, from Scuola Normale Superiore in Florence, a co-author of the study. “The time is ripe for an effort to bring back to Italy at least 5,000 highly skilled researchers, also because of a steep reduction of opportunities in the US and UK.”


Correction (11 March 2021): the quote attributed to Dr. Tamburello in the original article lacked some context about the recruiting process, and the salary figures were inaccurate. The text has been amended.


  1. Nascia L., Pianta M., Zacharewicz T., Science and Public Policy (2021)

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