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The State of Research in Europe and in Italy: The Risks of Short-Sighted Decisions

Ignazio R. Marino • Claudia Cirillo
Published online: 30 July 2014
Springer Science+Business Media New York 2014

Research is facing declining funding rates everywhere, affecting the cultural and economic growth of some of major world powers. We looked at the choices on funding allocation made by the USA and by Europe, to compare priorities and analyze consequences. Also, within Europe, we focused on Italy and on its consistent braindrain phenomenon, as an example of short-sighted research policies that appear to require not only the urgent infusion of monetary resources and the creation of new job opportunities, but also and especially a general change of cultural approach.

The Current State of Research Funding in the USA and in the EU

Biomedical investigators everywhere are facing declining funding rates, with many forced, due to lack of funding, to seek careers in other areas. Young investigators, due to their vulnerability, are especially exposed to these cutbacks. Researchers on both sides of the Atlantic lament a growing lack of resources and a narrowing national vision.
As investigators familiar with the US and EU systems, we would like to comment on how this funding decline has affected the research enterprises of these two major world powers, with particular attention to differences in fund allocation and the setting of standards and priorities that go beyond national economic characteristics, but are rather informed by cultural idiosyncrasies and national priorities inconsistent with a thriving research enterprise, with special attention to the plight of young investigators.

A Comparison Between Research Investments in Europe and in the USA

The allocations and the main areas of investment planned by the US Congress and the European Union (EU) for research for 2014 and 2015 were obtained through review of the US budget through the FY2014 Omnibus Appropriation Bill and, more recently, through President Obama’s USD 3.9 tr budget request to Congress, and the First Amending Letter to 2014 Budget and the Horizon 2020 (H2020) program, the principal financial tool for research and innovation in Europe, consisting of nearly EUR 80 bn (*USD 111 bn) available over 2014–2020. With these tools at our disposal, we can compare priorities and approaches of the research and development (R&D) agendas of the two principal global powers.
Many in the USA are convinced that the national budget no longer has the potential to advance scientific discovery.
The USA, as the uncontested global leader in the life sciences, now faces challenges from other world powers. For instance, allocations to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the Food and Drug Administration are generally considered insufficient to maintain the country’s global leadership in the field of medical innovation and science.
Due to budgetary declines, the ‘‘purchasing power’’ of the NIH has recently declined 20 %, with the consequence that it can fund only one in every seven research proposals that it receives. These declines are tempered by the recent uptick in research and development (R&D) funding from private and industrial sources. According to the National Science Foundation, these invested USD 428.2 bn in R&D in 2011, 5.4 % more than in 2010, increasing by 7.7 % in 2012 to USD 452.6 bn, with the trend likely to persist well into the future. Federal government studies have reported that 75 % of the US new wealth produced after World War II originated from the application of scientific discoveries.
More importantly, similar positive effects are manifest in the short term. R&D Magazine calculated that 69 % of the 2014 R&D investments (USD 465 bn) originated from private businesses, directly employing 2.7 million people (1.4 million of which are researchers) and indirectly another 2.0 million, creating 4.0 million new jobs in several areas, translating into 8.0 % of the US economy being based on scientific research and technological innovation.
These numbers, in spite of the legitimate complaints of research institutions and individual scientists and scholars who still feel that more should be done, are a testament to salient characteristics of the US system, namely that: (1) investments in R&D are considered to impact the economy in the long and short term; (2) global competitiveness can be maintained only by raising the investment quotas, since other world emerging leaders are adopting this strategy; and (3) there is political consensus across the US Congress about the need to invest public money to sustain the country’s leadership in the field of innovative scientific research as a source for economic development. The USA invests ~2.8 % of its GDP in R&D, whereas China invests 2.0 %, and the EU, 1.9 %. Only Japan can boast an allocation of 3.4 %.
The preoccupation with the current EU economic and financial crisis has channeled 25 % of the 2014 H2020 budget to mostly support research conducted by industry in continental Europe, almost five times more than is allocated to the life science industry in the USA (where it receives6 % of total funding), where discoveries can be transferred directly to the market. Another fundamental difference is the focus on applied science in Europe, whereas the USA invests mostly in fundamental research.
Similarly, in Europe, modest resources are still channeled to the health and energy sectors, which typically take several years to mature to market.
While the USA promotes a long-term approach investing in fundamental research and advanced technology, Europe has adopted a more prudent, short-term strategy, due mostly to cultural and political biases. The case of Italy, within the EU, perfectly exemplifies the limitations and the incentives of this approach.

The Italian Case

One of the goals of the H2020 Program is to increase the GDP allocations to R&D for all EU members to at least 3 %. As an example, Italy currently invests only 1.25 % of its GDP in R&D, below the EU average (Eurostat 2011), which is nearly 2 %, and further below the USA. In 2010, in Italy, 1.52 % of employed adults were working in R&D. Again this quota is below the EU average.3 Out of 54,414 patents registered in Europe, in 2010, only 4,423 (8 %) were Italian, below the EU average and far below that of France (8,700) and especially of Germany (21,700). Nevertheless, the quality of Italian research is excellent.
A database of the Italian Research Map documents the Italian contribution to the 7th Framework Program of the European Commission (FP7) through more than 2,000 of 100,000 projects conducted or participated by the 173 countries admitted to FP7, up to December 2013. Italy is featured among the top five countries as project coordinator (1,767 projects), after Spain (2,112), France (2,377), Germany (2,828), and the UK (4,441). On the whole, Italy contributed to FP7 with 37,867 proposals. Among the Italian contractors admitted, the most important universities and research centers are featured, such as CNR (National Research Council), FIAT Research Centre, ENEA (Energia Nucleare ed Energie Alternative), the Agency for the Promotion of Research in Europe (APRE), the Italian Institute for Technology Foundation, STMicroelectronics, and the National Institute for Nuclear Physics.
Nevertheless, Italy’s national research system is functioning sub-optimally.
The Italian deficit is due to the paucity of public and private sector participation: The former is about half the European average with public fund investment 0.18 percentage points below the OECD (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development)’s average. Less money translates into fewer resources, fewer researchers and a much smaller innovation potential. Besides less funding, blind political choices, cultural paternalism, and procedural hurdles impair the ability of Italian researchers to realize their full potential. In terms of publications and outcomes, Italians can boast exceptional quality and productivity— two achievements that unfortunately mostly occur out of their country.
The phenomenon by which highly educated and skilled Italians take their talent abroad in search of better career opportunities and payoffs is termed the ‘‘brain-drain.’’
Within twelve months of graduation, 7 % of Italian graduates find employment abroad, which in 2012 amounted to more than 14,000 (Source: Istituto Nazionale di Statistica (ISTAT), Italian National Institute of Statistics). Despite Europe’s attempts to retain qualified investigators, each year 30,000 Italian researchers leave while only 3,000 scientists move to Italy from other countries, making Italy the one European state where affirmative action to quell the exodus of young scientists is most needed, in order to stop enriching the scientific communities of competing countries at its expense. Considering an average cost of EUR 3,000 per semester, times five years of university course per student, Italy ends up losing at least EUR 175 mn annually for the students that it lets go. After having been educated and trained at the expense of Italy, these skilled engineers, economists, and physicians contribute to the research and development enterprise and the economic growth of other nations. The reasons they leave include superior employment opportunities, salaries, and above all, the growth opportunities that accrue from being granted credit and responsibility in their field of expertise. Scientists need to leave Italy to advance their careers, but they also face reintegration problems when they return. This has to do with the Italian anachronistic system of distributing jobs in research. It’s who you know, not what you know, that often counts the most.
Italy’s problem with patronage is a major cause of weakness not only within the academia, but also in the broader world of professionalism and production, with heavy consequences on the national economy.
Another issue, especially in the field of medical education, is the lack of mentoring that supports the professional development of students, residents, and faculty. Leaders have the responsibility to share knowledge and offer insight, providing a unique perspective for students and research faculty. Far too often, however, the Italian academic system protects the privileges of established faculty members rather than fostering the growth of students, another reason to leave for countries where academic research involves frequent data exchange with peers combined with concrete opportunities to advance professionally in order to gain scientific maturity and job market value.
As one of us (IM) has often stressed, ‘‘Italy is still far behind in research investment, and this needs to change.
But the crucial switch is not simply to increase funding.
The way the new government should proceed is to reform the allocation criteria for funding and to start applying across-the-board the selection and evaluation rules of peer review. Such a system would acknowledge meritocracy and free researchers from the virtual slavery under which they have been kept by old academicians.’’ (Marino IR. Acceptance of peer review will free Italy’s research slaves, Nature, 453, 449, 22 May 2008)

Italy is, however, not exceptional in Europe: Recently, in France, the Scientific Council of CNRS (Comite` National de la Recherche Scientifique) has warned politicians and the civil society in regard to the risks that the research system is running as a consequence of poor availability of human and financial resources. The negative example of Italy is quoted by CNRS as an outcome that France should avoid at all costs. The reference to Italy shows France’s preoccupation ‘‘with extremely rapid consequences in terms of deep destruction of the research system.’’


Italy is a paradigm of a G8 country that has not realized its enormous potential as a scientific power in Europe and in the world. A cultural revolution is needed, starting from a new definition of the role of education and culture at large within a society that aims at innovating and promoting technological progress.
It is necessary to invest in technologically advanced and scientifically outstanding research that can be achieved by creating and supporting a strong and direct tie between basic research and innovative biotechnology companies.
This model requires years to develop, a time frame incompatible with the short-lived governments of Italy, given its notorious political instability. In less than 70 years of republican history, the country has churned through 63 governments, each one lasting on average for a little more than a year. Evidence of unwise or too timid provisions by economic and legal authorities, instead of systematic and long-term efforts, has reduced faith among Italian researchers—and the citizens at large—in the ability of Italy to grow its scientific infrastructure and enterprise.
Indeed, there is a strong connection between scientific R&D and a healthy democracy.
The 2013 Eurobarometer ‘‘Responsible Research and Innovation,’’ funded by the Science and Society program of the EU’s FP7, shows that 65 % of Europeans think that their government is doing too little to stimulate young people’s interest in science. There is a need to support formal and informal science education, especially in Southern and Eastern EU member states. Also, within OECD, women earn more than half of the total number of university degrees, but still hold only 30 % of those in the field of science and technology. Given the current highly successful trend for women to excel in science in the USA and elsewhere, one fundamental objective is to expose school-age girls to more and better science and technology teaching and practice.
In Italy, research institutes need to be less static, procedures must gain transparency, and researchers should be able to develop a more competitive character and an entrepreneurial spirit. In order to achieve these goals, even before allocating more funds, there is a need to make political and industrial strategic choices. The three main goals to re-launch Italian (and European) research are as follows: (a) improve international competitiveness; (b) fight the brain-drain; and (c) design new access routes for young skilled researchers. This can be done essentially by:

  • applying the strict criteria of scholarly peer review to all selection and evaluation processes, promoting merit versus favoring the ancient and ossified rigid hierarchies of acquired power;
  • raising the amount of international cooperation with countries that are particularly dynamic in R&D such as Germany and the USA;
  • opening the doors to the business sector, facilitating partnerships between academia and industry; and
  • providing enhanced support and resources for young investigators.

All told, a much needed change of perception, culture, and approach would likely achieve far more benefit that an infusion of new resources.

Ignazio Marino - The State of Research in Europe and in Italy: The Risks of Short-Sighted Decisions