Saturday, December 16, 2006

Research in Italy

Yesterday I travelled back to Reykjavík after a very short visit to Italy. During the trip back to the North Atlantic, I was reading La Repubblica, an Italian newspaper. One of the news items that caught my eye dealt with the protests by the rectors of Italian universities, who are very unhappy about the cuts to their institutions' budgets that are part of the latest financial law passed by the Italian government.

I am afraid that I do not know enough about the developments to express an informed opinion about the whole thing. However, I have always sternly refused to buy the argument that, unlike other countries, Italy does not have the cash to support universities and research. How can a member state of the G8 elite be short of money to support its future? Let's not mask lack of interest in science and technology as supposed poverty. By way of example, BRICS and the other research centres of the Danish National Research Foundation were richly funded for five-year periods (14 years for BRICS) with the interests resulting from the privatization of an insurance company! The outcome for Danish science is for everybody to see.

Why shouldn't the same type of investment in basic research be possible in a country like Italy? The reasons must be the same that prevent Italy from investing in its schools and universities. Three figures in the article I was reading yesterday paint an amazingly bleak picture. Italy boasts only about 3 researchers every 1000 workers. This is less than each of the other countries mentioned in the list. We (Italians) spend only about 1.2% of the GNP in research. Only Greece, Spain and Portugal invest less. Last but not least, Italy spends only 8000$ a year per university student. This is the same as Hungary, and half of what Sweden spends. Why are we Italians so masochistic?

Still, if I look at Italian research in TCS, I can only classify it as being very strong, despite the lack of money for research and the sub-optimal support. Yes, I know that I am biased. Even though I have never worked in an Italian university myself, I try to maintain good ties with my colleagues based in Italy. It is, however, an incontrovertible fact that there are many very active and very strong Italian TCS researchers. The strongest Italian CS departments are high class, and Italy exports talent. Off the top of my head, I could come up with the following list of Italian TCS researchers working abroad (with apologies to those whose names have not crossed my mind right now):

  1. Luca de Alfaro
  2. Roberto Amadio
  3. Antonio Bucciarelli
  4. Cristiano Calcagno
  5. Luca Cardelli
  6. Ilaria Castellani
  7. Giuseppe Castagna
  8. Roberto Di Cosmo
  9. Luigi Liquori (who is from Pescara like me)
  10. Giuseppe Longo
  11. Sergio Maffeis
  12. Pasquale Malacaria
  13. Silvio Micali
  14. Catuscia Palamidessi
  15. Luigi Santocanale
  16. Vladimiro Sassone
  17. Luca Trevisan
  18. Daniele Varacca
  19. Luca Viganò
  20. Francesco Zappa Nardelli
(Notice how many of these researchers work in France, and how many of them are located in Paris!) I believe that the above people would be considered as forming a very strong theory group anywhere in the world, and there are many more strong TCS researchers in Italy itself. I can only encourage the Italian political establishment and Italian universities to give Italian researchers a suitable environment for producing the best research they can. To my mind, this would be a win-win situation for Italy as a whole. Unfortunately for Italian science, it looks like Italy's politicians disagree with me.

Addendum 19/12/2006: Yesterday I read an article by Princeton philosopher Peter Singer, on the subject of philantropy, poverty and ethics. (Thanks to Luca Trevisan for his post on this very interesting article, which is a must read during the crazy Christmas period.)

The following excerpt from that article struck me as being very relevant to this disjointed post of mine:

The Nobel Prize-winning economist and social scientist Herbert Simon estimated that “social capital” is responsible for at least 90 percent of what people earn in wealthy societies like those of the United States or northwestern Europe. By social capital Simon meant not only natural resources but, more important, the technology and organizational skills in the community, and the presence of good government. These are the foundation on which the rich can begin their work.

If instead of wealth, we consider "intellectual output", how much would Italian researchers produce in the presence of better technology and organizational skills in the community, and in the presence of good government? What if they could devote more of their time to not fighting against the system?

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