Science and Society between Light and Shade, between Italy and Europe

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Some light shed, many shadows, but, above all, many cues for the investigation on the possible strategies to adopt in the future: in short, this is the general framework that emerges from the new Science and Society Facts and Figures 2009 recently published by Observa Science in Society.

First and foremost, the problem of human resources, which needs to be taken into account when considering research potential developments and its social role. The Italian quantitative data are now common knowledge, and they see us weak in terms of number of researchers: little more than three out of a thousand employed. If comparing Italy with the Countries at the highest positions in the list (where we find Finland, with almost 17) results almost impossible, we cannot fail to notice that the EU average and the data regarding Spain almost double our figures.

Perhaps, the fact that this difference is particularly high in the private sector is less immediate: in the Italian business sector we find three scientists out of ten, while in Sweden or in Japan private sector researchers reach almost 70%, and our neighbouring country Austria employs a number that is only slightly smaller.

Another fact that characterises our human resources in negative terms is their level of remuneration. Here we really occupy the last places: only researchers in Island, Portugal, Greece and in the Eastern Europe earn lower wages than ours (compared with country-specific living costs). We are also one of the countries with the oldest research personnel: in Ireland 70% is younger than 44 years of age, against 57% in our Country; if we only look at the university scenarios, one forth of the professors is older than 60 years of age (only five Eastern European Countries have research personnel that is older than ours).

Thus, we understand that there is a serious problem in the human resources recruiting and renewing processes in the Italian science and technology field, and this problem results accentuated by a productivity system that is little keen on making investments in this direction. A positive model that has emerged lately is the Øresund Science Region between Sweden and Denmark, which in 2008 received an award as the most innovative region in Europe. Strong elements of integration between the public and the private sectors, between universities and businesses, have given birth to a consortium of twelve universities committed to the coordination and the integration of their efforts oriented to raising the quality of their supply and their ability to attract the best talents, supported by six scientific-technological parks, over two thousand businesses and five activity platforms in the IT and telecommunications sectors, together with logistics, food and environmental studies, medicine and biotechnologies. Multinationals such as Sony Ericsson, Astra Zeneca, Tetra Pak, Novo Nordisk (but also smaller businesses with a high level of innovation) have found their ideal habitat in Øresund.

Another critical issue for Italy lies in its regional differences. Who quotes the OECD-PISA data on our students’ competencies in mathematics and in sciences, for instance, should always consider adding the fact that the national average hides an extremely unhomogeneous picture. In short: we have students that present levels of competencies close to the best performances in Europe and in OECD (such as Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Trentino-Alto Adige and Veneto), but also students with the lowest levels of competencies in the world (such as Puglia, Campania and Sicily). This difference is visible also at other levels: about one half of the personnel employed in R&D in Italy is concentrated in three regions (Lombardia, Lazio and Piemonte).

The Italian peculiarities in this respect make the individuation of role models difficult. There is no doubt over the fact that more could be done to initiate virtuous processes that follow good practices, also at the international level. In fact, themes such as human resources – and also the more general ones linked to research and innovation policies – seem to be destined to find solutions at the European level rather than at the national one. And it is here that perhaps institutions should concentrate most of their efforts.
Apart from areas of unquestionable excellence (for example in physics, where we find an array of publications that is higher than the international average by 20%), the data are scathing in highlighting the fact that active researchers in Italy find enormous difficulties in accessing European funding opportunities.

Finally, the science and society relationship from a wider perspective. Here the feeling is that we are faced with wide availability and consensus from the citizens, but this does not always find adequate instruments through which action can be taken in research. What strikes our attention, for instance, is the fact that Italians express a level of trust in technological development that is higher than the European average, and an ever-growing inclination to contribute to research funding (through donations for instance); they participate in the ever-more numerous science festivals and events in great numbers, but then very rarely do they read a science book; that they honestly judge themselves as among the less informed ones in Europe on environmental issues and on climate change.
Also here we do have models that we can follow: the Scandinavian Countries, for instance, who owe their scientific and technological development mainly to their private sector, have been supporting their research activities also with structural funding for culture and education: local libraries, diffusion of computer skills, meritocracy and a healthy competition in the access to the resources dedicated to institutions and students, at every level.

Article published on TuttoScienze, the scientific supplement of the Italian newspaper La Stampa, 18 february 2009. Translation by Sara Pascoli.