Federalism and research: an important challenge

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In the broad discussion on federalism conducted in recent months, relatively little attention has been paid to its implications for scientific research policies. How can the emphasis on local responsibilities and priorities be reconciled with a phenomenon –research – increasingly transnational in terms of strategies and resources?

An example that has set the standard in recent years is the Øresund region between Sweden and Denmark. The close integration between public and private, between universities and businesses, but above all the collaboration between the two regions – as symbolized by the construction of a 16-kilometre bridge which physically links the cities of Malmö and Copenhagen – have made the zone a case of excellence in research and innovation.

The area comprises a consortium of twelve universities which combine and coordinate efforts to enhance the quality of their education delivery and their capacity to attract the best talents, six science-technology parks, over two thousand firms, and five activity platforms in the sectors of IT and telecommunications, logistics, foodstuffs, environmental studies, medicine, and biotechnologies. Multinationals such as Sony Ericsson, Astra Zeneca, TetraPak, Novo Nordisk (but also numerous small and medium-sized high-innovation firms) have found an ideal habitat in the Øresund region. The 300 firms operating in the biotechnologies and life sciences sectors, together with numerous subsidiaries of international companies, have 40,000 employees in the private sector alone, and 10,000 public and private-sector researchers, and they attract investments amounting to more than 700 million euros.

It is also thanks to these features that the Swedish-Danish region stands as the most authoritative candidate to host, from 2018 onwards, the European Spallation Source, a large-scale European infrastructure for materials research.

It will be said that this is a model difficult to apply in Italy, given that it is favoured by significant contextual factors, not least language skills (in English) and the proximity of cultures (also administrative).

Yet the Øresund is a significant example of how a close relationship between research and the territory does not necessarily signify localist myopia or the lack of a broader strategic vision.

Optimists will certainly have noticed the most recent STAT data showing, in some Italian regions, a significant growth of investments by firms in research and development. Italy, too, has a long tradition of contacts and cooperation with neighbouring regions in Central Europe and the Mediterranean basin. Tapping into that tradition in regard to research as well could be one of main challenges to be confronted in the new federalist arrangement.

Massimiano Bucchi is Professor of Science, Technology and Society at the University of Trento.