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Brain drain, when a researcher in The Netherlands is worth five times an Italian one

With flight luggage labels around their wrists and grouped together in a square on a warm mid-September day, a large number of Italian researchers met up in Rome, in front of the Parliament, to declare their readiness to emigrate if lawmakers do not adjust to EU laws enabling and facilitating research. Italy is in fact the Cinderella of Europe as regards research, a key factor in balanced and sustainable development, with investments amounting to just 1% of the GDP, as well as the conditions in which researchers have to work, in social and, unfortunately, political contexts that are often hostile or in any case ignorant of scientific culture, experimentation and the actual most innovative corporate culture. The meaning behind the protest is that the only way out is to leave, with an Italy which in this way remains scientifically more ignorant, more provincial and poorer.

A brain drain therefore which governments attempt to slow down (with tax relief for those who return to Italy, incentives for start-ups and promises of higher investments in research) but with poor results to date. The ISTAT (statistics) figures processed by Fondazione Hume for La Stampa say that 10,643 graduates have left Italy, while only 5,752 have returned. A negative balance of 4,891, higher by 3,649 over the previous year and steadily increasing from 2004 to date. Where do Italian graduates go in search of better working conditions? Great Britain, Switzerland, Germany, France and the USA above all, while new and interesting professional opportunities are opening up in China and the fast-moving Far East and also Brazil which has just announced that it needs 4 million doctors in the coming years (a fearsome competitor: a country of Latin culture, with a solid democracy and already with a strong Italian presence). The highest percentage of the brain drain is made up by engineers, graduates in economics and above all science subjects, mathematicians, chemists, physicists and biologists. Precious skills for research and for innovation in companies that need to strengthen the competitive value of the knowledge economy.

Why do they go? Elena Cattaneo, a very famous neurobiologist and newly appointed life senator by the Italian president Giorgio Napolitano (together with other major cultural figures such as Claudio Abbado, Renzo Piano and Carlo Rubbia), has denounced the serious disparity of salaries between Italian researchers and those who work overseas. Fabiola Gianotti, head of the team at Cern in Geneva who discovered the Higgs boson and the most famous female Italian scientist in the world, focuses on the precariousness which generations of researchers in Italy are forced to suffer and the low public investments in research, noting that without essential research there are no ideas, without ideas there are no applications and without applications there is no progress. Another negative condition for Italy.

The Times Higher Education has drawn up a ranking of the market value of a researcher, calculating the amount public organisations and private firms invest in salaries, benefits, bonuses for results, etc. This shows how the 93 thousand dollars of South Korea and the 72.8 thousand of The Netherlands barely correspond to the 14.4 thousand of Italy. In other words a Dutch researcher is paid 5 times more than an Italian one (just to continue with the comparison, we can also recall the 50.5 thousand dollars in China, 46.1 in Sweden, 25.8 in the USA, 19.4 in Germany). It’s not just a question of money but also of social importance and economic role: in Italy there are just 4.1 researchers per 1000 employees, 8.87 in France, 8.25 in Great Britain, 7.74 in Germany, i.e. more or less double the figure in Italy. The EU average is 7.58, a goal we should aim at therefore, doubling, and fast, for example, that measly 1% of the GDP invested in research and in this way building up a new policy for industry, culture and innovation.