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Italy Eyes Science Ministry

MILAN-Scientific research, long neglected in Italy despite its position as the sixth largest Western industrial economy, could receive greater recognition next year within a new government. A full-fledged Ministry of Scientific and Technological Research is being sought by Luigi Granelli, who for the past three years has been Minister without Portfolio with responsibility for both science and technology. He has made for-mal recognition of full ministerial status for his department a condition fo

By | December 15, 1986

MILAN-Scientific research, long neglected in Italy despite its position as the sixth largest Western industrial economy, could receive greater recognition next year within a new government.

A full-fledged Ministry of Scientific and Technological Research is being sought by Luigi Granelli, who for the past three years has been Minister without Portfolio with responsibility for both science and technology. He has made for-mal recognition of full ministerial status for his department a condition for his participation in the next government, according to well-informed sources within the scientific community who were un willing to be identified. The cur-rent Socialist government of Prime Minister Bettino Craxi is scheduled to give way next year to one led by the Christian Democrats.

The proposals benefit from re cent comments by top scientists within Italy and abroad who are seeking major changes in government support for scientific re search. Rita Levi-Montalcini, new Nobel laureate in physiology and director of the Laboratory of Cell Biology of the Consiglio Nazionale della Richerche in Rome, has urged the CNR (National Research Council) to boost its efforts to at-tract young Italian scientists now studying abroad with better salaries, a greater intellectual challenge and a more modern working environment. Carlo Rubbia, a 1984 No-be! Prize winner in physics and senior research scientist at CERN, Europe's center for particle phys ics, sees his work at the new synchrotron in Trieste as an example of the quick and concentrated approach to research that Italy must take to retain its competitiveness in the field.

Granelli's effort involves more than a simple political restructuring. A new science ministry would lead to a unified research budget, and the elevation to civil service status of a highly qualified staff that responds directly to the science minister.

This would represent a far better situation for science than the one that exists at present. Science and technology now fall under the umbrella of the Prime Minister's office-a loose arrangement that supports staff out of the Premier's office funds and "innovative and applied research" from a separate budget. All other public investments in research have their own budgets, controlled by such organizations as the Research Council and the ENEA (Nuclear and Alter-native Energy Board).

This structure has contributed to Italy's ranking at the bottom of the European heap in spending. This year the figure was 11 trillion lira ($7.8 billion) from all sources, or 1.3 percent of the country's GNP. This compares with an aver-age of 2.5 percent in the European Community. Supporters of the change argue that a department with its own budget and a staff working directly under a single minister would ensure greater efficiency and permit more flexible use of resources.

Despite the acknowledged need for improved support for science, several obstacles stand in the way of change. The new Ministry would first require Granelli's reconfirmation in the new government with the same duties. The country's legislation machinery, notoriously slow, would need to act promptly. Finally, the creation of a new Ministry would clash with Italy's urgent need to reduce its public deficit, which in terms of its Gross National Product far exceeds even that of the United States.

Bono is editor of Biotec, a monthly magazine in Milan.

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