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Look to Moplen and Giulio Natta to rethink research and development

Italy of the 1960s was full of life. Ironically enough, 2013 marks the 50th anniversary of the height of Italy’s economic boom. And it was that same year, 1963, in which an Italian, Giulio Natta, was awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry for his work that led to the discovery of “isotactic polypropylene”, a plastic polymer that was to revolutionise the daily lives of millions of Italians under the trade name Moplen. With new products came new habits, as lauded by comedian Gino Bramieri, who, for the Italian Carosello TV commercials, was shown using all sorts of objects – from buckets and strainers to bottles and toys – all practical, clean and unbreakable, before imploring, “Now ladies, / take heed: / it’s Moplen / that you need.”

That Moplen was the result of a virtuous partnership launched in the early 1950s between Politecnico di Milano and Montecatini, the embodiment of cutting-edge academic research and industrial application coming in the wake of testing that had begun in the late 1930s by Natta himself involving synthetic rubber (in collaboration, at that time, with Politecnico and Pirelli). This proved to be an important, exemplary partnership because it was this collaboration between industry and university research that enabled Natta and his colleagues to take radical steps forward with the work of the German researcher Carl Ziegler (who was awarded the Nobel Prize together with Natta), which would otherwise have remained mere theory.

Italy, a hotbed of manufacturing excellence and a land suited to all that is both beautiful and well made. The epitome of a culture of enterprise that united flair and creativity with mass production. Cutting-edge technology, design, market strategy and financial success all revolved around one key concept: education and research lead to development, wealth, employment and a better quality of life.

Over time, Italy lost this momentum in applied research, wasting opportunities, cutting back on resources, and even allowing the failure of great, cutting-edge organisations such as the international genetics and biophysics lab established in Naples in 1961 by great minds like Adriano Buzzati, Luca Cavalli Sforza and Franco Graziosi, but which was shut down by the unbearable hostility of bureaucrats and academics (an affair also recalled in a book by Francesco Cassata, L’Italia intelligente, published by Donzelli). Statistics now show that, at just 1% of private and public-sector investment going to research, Italy is lagging behind the rest of Europe, and it is this short-sighted decision to sacrifice research, innovation and education (in favour of unproductive, nepotistic public spending) that is playing a key role in the country’s stagnation over the last twenty years and in the current, dramatic recession.

So looking back on the economic boom of the 1950s and 60s, the work of Natta, and the dynamism of Italian industry is not a mere walk down memory lane, but an attempt to walk in the footsteps of those who made dynamic, international development strategies that were both well thought out and sustainable over time during those years of such great hope and enterprise. An attempt to make forward-looking economic and industrial policies and to rebuild competitiveness. Of course, no one is under the illusion that Italy can become like Israel, where 5% of GDP goes to research and development (and which boasts a flourishing, competitive and high-tech economy), but we can – and, indeed, must – at least double the miserable 1% at which the country is currently languishing.

“If I see any cuts in education and research, I will step down,” proclaimed the Italian Prime Minister, Enrico Letta, in his first speeches as the country’s leader. Great. Or, at least, better than nothing. But Italy needs a bit more than that. We need the opposite of cuts. We need new, long-term investment and a new culture of development.