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CNR: Alamanacco della Scienza


N. 17 - 26 nov 2014
ISSN 2037-4801

International info   a cura di Cecilia Migali


The Italian paradox

Statistics on scientific research in Italy reveal a striking contradiction. While the country's R&D resources significantly lag behind those of other major economies, its output, in terms of scientific publications, is not only one of the most prolific in the world, but also highly recognized in several fields. In recent years, Italy's annual R&D spending, has averaged around 1.13% of Gdp, compared with a European Union average of 1.84% (2004-2006). With 51%, the public sector is the largest contributor to R&D funding, compared to the private sector's 48%–an uncommon occurrence in major world economies.

The country counts an average of just 3.4 researchers per 1000 people employed, against 8.2 in France. Yet between 1998 and 2008, Italy produced 371,205 scientific publications, putting the country in eighth position worldwide and fourth in Europe. The predominant fields are medical science, space science, mathematics, and physics.

Over this same period, Italian publications were the seventh most cited internationally (4.16 million) particularly in the fields of molecular biology and genetics, immunology, space science, and neuroscience and behavior–illustrating researchers' proficiency in these fields.

Young Italians have been the second most successful scientists in obtaining European Research Council grants, awarded on highly selective criteria of scientific excellence and creativity.

R&D organization and funding are essentially directed by the Ministry for Education, Universities, and Research (Miur) in consultation with the scientific community, local government, and private enterprise. Miur-led research policy is set in three-year plans, called the National Program for Research (Pnr). Applied sciences receive almost half the annual research spending, while the rest is evenly split between development and basic research. The country's 61 public and 26 private universities, comprising a total of 1.8 million students, employ 67,000 researchers and receive about 30% of all state R&D spending.

In addition to overseeing university research, the MIUR also manages most major research agencies, including the National Research Council (Cnr, the largest Italian research organization with approximately 4000 researchers), the energy and environment agency (Enea), and the national institutes of mathematics (Indam), astrophysics (Inaf), and nuclear and particle physics (Infn).

In 2007, foreign cooperation projects accounted for almost 40% of the 45,241 Italian scientific publications produced. France was the second most active partner (after the US), involved in 3363 co-publications, half of which with Cnrs, mostly in physics (39%), space science (30%), chemistry (16%), and fundamental biology (12%). Conversely, Italy was the fourth most active partner in Cnrs co-publications. This close collaboration is illustrated in the almost 5000 Cnrs research trips to Italy in 2008. Furthermore, Italians make up the largest foreign contingent among Cnrs researchers.

The numerous informal transalpine collaborations are a breeding ground for a large number of structured cooperation projects between Cnrs and Italy.

Three Cnrs laboratories and two from the Infn (Frascati and Catania) currently collaborate in the design and construction of modular components for a powerful electro-magnetic calorimeter, Alice EMcal, based at the Large Hadron Collider at the European Laboratory for Nuclear Research (Cern). The project, which also includes three US labs, will study interacting matter at extreme energy densities, with the hope of observing the formation of quark-gluon plasma, a new phase of matter.

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Jason Brown