Last week’s general elections in Italy resulted in a clear victory for the right-wing coalition, making far-right leader Giorgia Meloni the first female prime minister in a country where political leaders were overwhelmingly male.
But researchers have little hope that the new government will boost Italy’s underfunded research system. And some worry that issues like climate change aren’t getting the attention they deserve.
“I don’t have high hopes for the foreseeable future,” says Federico Ronchetti, a physicist at the National Institute for Nuclear Physics in Frascati, who started a petition in 2020 calling for Italy’s public investment in research to be doubled.
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Science hardly played a role in the election campaigns, including those of the winning coalition. “However, this does not mean – or at least I hope so – that this absence will be reflected in the actions of the coming government,” says Elena Cattaneo, senator for life, a stem cell scientist at the University of Milan.
However, while the right-wing coalition wants to form a new government, no name has yet been proposed for the head of the Ministry of Universities and Research – Italy’s main research funding agency. According to Cattaneo, this is “a sign of a lack of interest” in science.
Meloni and her team did not respond to requests for comment from Nature.
With R&D spending of around 1.5% of gross domestic product (GDP), Italy lags behind the EU country average of around 2.2%. Most research funding comes from industry, with public investment accounting for only about 0.5% of Italy’s GDP. Around 14,000 Italian researchers left the country between 2008 and 2019 – a trend that can be partly explained by cuts in research budgets.
Some researchers now fear that the new government will further cut funding for public research. “Previous right-wing governments significantly reduced spending on science,” says Mario Pianta, an economist at the Scuola Normale Superiore in Florence. And Meloni’s government is facing additional challenges: Italy’s economy is being shaken by high energy costs, a sudden surge in inflation and rising national debt. In this context, says Pianta, “cuts in research spending are easier to enforce politically than other cuts in public spending.”
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The previous government, led by technocrat Mario Draghi, tried to use some of the European Union’s pandemic recovery funds to boost science in Italy. The investment plan provides around 11 billion euros (11 billion US dollars) for research.
During her election campaign, Meloni said she intends to “update” this plan in light of rising prices, exacerbated by the war in Ukraine. Now researchers fear that part of the research budget could be shifted elsewhere – for example to ensure a stable energy supply or in sectors such as tourism.
Some are also concerned about Meloni’s attitude towards scientists. Although containment and social distancing have proven crucial in limiting transmission of COVID-19 and reducing hospitalizations, she criticized the restrictions put in place in Italy this month.
Ahead of the elections, all major Italian political parties, including Melonis Brothers of Italy, agreed to set up an advisory council to assess climate and environmental issues and advise the new government.
But those issues don’t appear to be top priorities for Meloni’s party. In an independent analysis of the parties’ commitment to climate and the environment, the brothers of Italy took last place. Their promises about practical answers to the climate crisis are “insufficient,” says Stefano Caserini, a climate scientist at the Polytechnic University of Milan who led the analysis. “The need to move away from fossil fuels wasn’t clear,” he adds.
Meloni’s manifesto mentioned incentives for agricultural innovation. Agricultural geneticists hope genome-editing techniques, which can help make plants more resilient to disease and changing environmental conditions, will be exempted from existing laws that have restricted their use in Italy and eventually across Europe. These techniques could make agriculture more productive and sustainable, says Enrico Pè, a plant geneticist at the Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies in Pisa. However, concrete proposals cannot be found in Meloni’s plans. “I’m not sure what to expect.”
A task force set up by the previous government has developed a basic research plan that recommended increasing public funding and changing the way money is allocated by creating an agency to evaluate project proposals and “work to international standards”. So far it’s unclear whether the new government will restructure the many agencies that assess universities and public research institutions, but Meloni has promised a ten-year research funding strategy. That would be a welcome change, because the promotion of science in Italy is unpredictable and tends not to be planned for the long term, says Alberto Baccini, an economist at the University of Siena. But without increased funding, he adds, “long-term planning isn’t going to make much of a difference.”