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Brains “Made in Italy”: locked or unlocked?

Posted by plosmedicine on 31 Mar 2009 at 00:18 GMT

Author: Maurizio Bifulco
Position: Professor
Institution: University of Salerno
Submitted Date: December 15, 2007
Published Date: December 17, 2007
This comment was originally posted as a “Reader Response” on the publication date indicated above. All Reader Responses are now available as comments.

The debate on university and scientific research is still an open issue in Italy, while emerging countries like China or India, are substantially supporting high-level training, scientific and technological development. Products “made in Italy” are widely promoted by the Italian economic system: examples are fashion, automobile, wine and food markets, even football! But which is the market that rates the so-called brains “made in Italy”?

Italy is the last among the G8 members to fund research and development private investments are mainly non-existent. The system of research, from universities to local governments, is founded on precarious jobs. Nevertheless, Italy gets excellent results, being third in scientific productivity, mainly in biomedical research, despite its failure to invest sufficiently in these minds “made in Italy”. The predictable consequence of this behaviour is that exceptional young Italian students cannot use their acquired expertise in dignified work. Thus the phenomenon of “Brain Drain” is evolving. Many young researchers move to countries like French, Germany, the United Kingdom and, in particular, the USA where promising job opportunities are offered. In these countries a more competitive research activity can be developed, supported by advanced technology and higher available funds. Moreover, students have greater possibilities of advancement and of achieving a better salary.

This migratory phenomenon could provide positive feedback in a process of globalisation leading up to a more comprehensive scientific knowledge. Unfortunately going abroad results mainly in the loss of minds, thus reverting the advantages of the mobilization. Furthermore, the migratory flow is not traded off by a “Brain Gain”, since it is unlikely that researchers from other countries will move to Italy. The consequence of this migratory flow is only partially understood in Italy, where the “Brain Drain” is promoted as a remedy. Therefore, a ministerial program, introduced as act of 2001, supports students to re-enter the Italian athenaeums offering non-permanent contracts of research and teaching, financed up to 95% by the Ministry. This program cannot represent by itself a panacea for scientific research in Italy. A policy of re-entry cannot replace an internal politics that should promote the scientific and technological research. Moreover the Italian government has not locked away the brains “in the cage”, namely young students in Italian universities who, supported by passion for research, work hardly but precariously for an uncertain future.

More than 60% of Italian researchers have precarious jobs. Nevertheless, they achieved esteemed outcomes, keeping alive Italian research and riding over the problems in universities and research institutes. This perseverance might make these “locked” researchers even more worthy than those apparently “unlocked” that should re-enter the Italian research projects before the deadline of their contracts drives them away from the research system. In Campania region, where there is a good tradition in biomedical sciences and talented minds are trained, an internal migratory flow is also observed - especially to Milan where more job opportunities are offered.

Radical reforms of the Italian University are necessary to establish the conditions for a better system, in which minds are nor driven out but encouraged to stay. Moreover it should be avoided the case of “talented minds” that, back to Italy with the program mentioned above only to get an academic degree, move back abroad again. Another issue of the Italian research system is to develop advanced technologies and funded international projects to bring exchange students.

It will be pivotal to hear out who is developing this debate on university and scientific research, so that Italy could find the way not only to spread but also to hire its brains.

No competing interests declared.