Research collaboration between the National Institutes of Health and the Istituto Superiore di Sanità (ISS) began with the signing of a Letter of Intent at the end of July. This institutional agreement confirms a Memorandum of Understanding for greater US-Italian cooperation in health and medical science signed on April 1. The partnership is designed to promote research areas of mutual interest, including cancer, cardiovascular disease, pulmonary disease, women's health, and neuroscience.
The project attracted the attention of key US and Italian science leaders. And as a declaration of high scientific interest, two Nobel Prize laureates, Rita Levi Montalcini (1986) and Paul Greengard (2000), witnessed the July proceedings.
THE MONEY Although the finer details remain undisclosed, the Italian Minister of Health, Girolamo Sirchia, is providing ¤10 million to ISS President Enrico Garaci, to be used for research proposals involving "cooperative activities undertaken or implemented by the ISS." Of particular note, this includes participation of non-ISS Italian researchers and covers costs of the exchange of scientists among participating research groups. NIH Director Elias Zerhouni was reluctant to be specific about US goals in the collaboration.
"We are not going to create a grant mechanism following the Italian grant mechanism," he said during the July signing ceremony. "Establishing a collaboration with funding of our own and of the Italians will result in better integration of very specific research projects."
This US funding will be channeled mainly through the NIH intramural grant approval system, he added. Thus, while promoting new joint US-Italy research proposals, the provision of specific extra NIH funding appears doubtful.
THE BENEFITS Both Zerhouni and Garaci stress that grant proposals will have to pass through the stringent international peer review systems of NIH and ISS, and will need to be approved by both sides. Such review and approval will encourage better standardization of the internal Italian grant review and awarding systems.
Furthermore, the agreement also emphasizes that NIH and ISS will work together with "developing countries and economies in transition." This is of specific interest to Barbara Ensoli, head of the AIDS division at ISS and an international expert in HIV/AIDS vaccines. "We already have several African countries with which we are working," she says. She believes that the collaboration could make it possible to not only improve these ongoing projects, but also to open up new areas and countries in Africa.
Carlo Croce, director of the Kimmel Cancer Center at Jefferson University in Philadelphia, collaborates with Italian laboratories and gets grant support from NIH. He sees importance specifically in the movement of researchers between collaborating laboratories. "I think that this is probably the way that could become more profitable in the long run," he said, noting the potential for significant benefits for the Italians in particular and others as well.
Giancarlo Vecchio, professor of oncology at Naples University and a collaborator of Carlo Croce and a number of groups at NIH, says that too much emphasis put solely on this NIH-ISS agreement takes credit from the many ongoing US-Italy university collaborations. This is reflected in his "international doctorate program that is designed for two-way Italian-US exchanges not only with NIH, but also with Johns Hopkins and Jefferson Universities," Vecchio says.
THE POLITICS The July signing was part of an official US presidential delegation to the governmental palace (Palazzo Chigi) in Rome. The delegation comprised the chairman of the US House Appropriations Committee and three other US Congressmen. Similarly, the Italian team included the deputy prime minister and three other government ministers. Perhaps surprising was the high level of political representation, all in the interests of biomedical and behavioral sciences research.
With Italian R&D spending about one-third of that in the United States (as a percent of GDP),2 Garaci said he "hopes that the presence of these politicians from the US and Italy means that we can have more investment in scientific research." Garaci and others agreed that the July signing represented a seed for further growth in the support of world science. The Italian and US leaders discussed a joint NIH-ISS "cancer portfolio" a few days after the signing. With the summer recess over, further such discussions, including HIV/AIDS vaccine development, should soon take place.
Chris Berrie (email@example.com) is a freelance writer in Fossacesia, Italy.
1. "HHS Secretary Thompson signs agreement with Italian Minister of Health Sirchia," press release available online at www.hhs.gov/news/press/2003pres/20030417.html.
2. F. Gannon, "Government rhetoric and their R&D expenditure: a score-card for governments' investments into science and future technologies," EMBO Reports, 4:117-20, 2003.