Research priorities according to Italians

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Issues concerning research policy have been under public discussion in Italy for some time. Attention has focused mainly on the shortage of funding, the invariable complaint being that Italy invests too little in scientific research and technological innovation. The use made of resources is less frequently discussed, although waste and inefficiency are often reported, together with an insistence that research should be given more selective orientation. But when the question of research priorities arises, the discussion seemingly disappears from the public arena and continues only among a handful of commentators.

The main actors in the process by which research funding priorities and strategies are established are scientists (the users of the resources allocated to research) and politicians (the representatives of the public as both the commissioner and recipient of scientific research). Businesses also have a say in the process, as the direct funders of research in the private sector, as partners in the public sector, and as the main agents of innovation.

This would be all very well were it not for the fact that politicians are no longer able to represent the host of interests that make up society, which certainly cannot be reduced to business alone. The belief that citizens do no more than support scientific research by paying their taxes and undergoing its effects (for good or ill) is no longer valid. It is gainsaid on the one hand by the growing pervasiveness of science in everyday life and, on the other, by the proliferation of the points of view which define its role.

Accordingly, enquiry as to the direction that research policy would take if the general public were consulted is no longer a purely rhetorical exercise.

The attitudes of Italians towards research policy have been shown very clearly by a recent survey: Italians give priority to research aimed at enhancing the use of alternative energy sources (26.2%), followed by research on climate change (18.5%) and the development of biotechnologies (13.6%). These results are stable in so far as the rankings given to the various research sectors do not change if the first and second choice are considered separately. Moreover, neither gender, age nor education introduce significant changes, except that 21% of graduates give biotechnologies second priority, compared with the 13% of interviewees with lower-secondary or upper-secondary certificates.

The results prompt two considerations. First, the highest places in the scale of priorities are occupied by research sectors concerned not just with problems affecting the everyday lives of Italians (it is not difficult to link alternative energies with pollution – especially that caused by traffic – or biotechnological research with medical applications) but also ones whose effects are less immediate (climate change) but nevertheless apparent.

Second, it is interesting to note the different priorities expressed by the general public and at the political-institutional level. Whereas the National Research Programme approved by the Italian government in 2002 gives prime importance to bioscience, nanoscience and infoscience for future investments, the general public prioritizes only biotechnologies, giving only 7.2% (4th place), 6.6% (5th place) and 5.3% (7th place) of preferences to neurosciences, telecommunications and nanotechnologies respectively.

The Italians attribute less importance to research on nuclear energy (6.2% corresponding to sixth position in the scale of priorities) than to alternative energy sources. This is not surprising, however, given the continuing opposition in Italy to nuclear power plants. They express a similar attitude to chemistry, a research sector which only 4.3% of the interviewees thought was important.

Further comment is required on the case of biotechnologies, both because biotechnologies are currently a matter of animated debate in Italy, and because the results of the survey contradict the assumption that Italians are prejudiced against research in this sector. The fact that 12.9% of interviewees gave first priority, and 13.5% second priority, to this sector demonstrates the existence of great interest in biotechnologies. The survey results would have been significantly different had there been entrenched hostility in Italy against biotechnologies in particular, and science in general.

Likewise, phenomena like the Telethon – and other public campaigns to raise funds for research – can only be explained by the existence of widespread confidence in science. The success of campaigns of this kind also seemingly show that, when Italians are given a chance to decide the directions in which scientific research should move, they are unstinting in their interest and support.