After failing to make any notable investment in genomics research for the past five years, the Italian government is proposing a ‘catch-up’ plan. IL270 billion (US$135 million) is to be dedicated to genomics through a project called IPERGEN, which will fund 6 leading centers and 70 individual research groups focusing on bioinformatics, gene expression analysis, animal models, genotyping and proteomics. The government is also setting aside IL37.5 billion to create five new biotech start-up companies.

So far, the country's only national genomics project has been an effort to map a portion of the X chromosome, which was started in 1988 and ran until 1995, when it was abandoned because of lack of funding. Arturo Falaschi, president of the International Center of Genetics, Engineering and Biotechnology in Trieste, complains that information gleaned from this national project and written up as a report in 1997 has not been taken into consideration by the government in planning the IPERGEN project. “This document never obtained proper government attention even though it focused on areas—including local population genetics and gene expression of mouse mutants—where Italy really can be internationally competitive,” he says. Other critics of the IPERGEN project cite the lack of a precise definition of targets tailored to the country's genomic strengths as a major flaw. They say it will be a poor duplication of research efforts already advanced in other countries.

Luca Cavalli-Sforza, a human population geneticist at Stanford University, warns that the coordinating committee could also undermine the project. “Most names will be proposed by politicians, except for one from a list nominated by the US NIH, and one by EMBO,” he says, adding, “very few politicians have shown that they can pick competent scientists, or, even able administrators of science.”

Another issue is the government's apparently misguided optimism that five biotech companies can be created so simply. “I doubt that the Italian government will become such an efficient developer of small private companies starting from scratch, in a culture where venture capitalism does not exist, and where banks lend money only to the truly rich who are reliable debtors,” says Cavalli-Sforza.