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Italian talent abroad

    • Rome
    • 19 April 2013

          Kicking off discussions at this National Interest event was the assertion that innovation is a complex ecosystem – an Amazonian forest in which every actor has a different role to play, but where the contribution of each is essential. While scientific and technological research is a key driver of innovation, it is not the only one. Also required is the input of public and private actors, big business and small pioneering start-ups, venture capitalists and deep and liquid stock markets, and young innovators with entrepreneurial flair and well-established mentors. Constant dialogue is needed between industry, universities, research laboratories and the user public, just as it is between different branches of learning, to ensure a cross-pollination of ideas that transcends disciplinary divides. Knowing how to combine imagination and concrete application, and how to think and act quickly, are also essential. The innovation that this ecosystem produces maybe groundbreaking or incremental, basic or applied, or scientific/technical or artistic/cultural in nature – but what matters above all is that it spawns something genuinely new.

          In the light of these general observations, the participants turned to consider the specific question of the kind of innovation ecosystem that Italy should seek to cultivate. In this regard, it was remarked that there is clearly no shortage of ideas or gifted individuals in the country. In terms of scientific research, Italy produces first-rate researchers. From an industrial perspective, its multinationals reputed for their flexibility hold very respectable world export shares, resulting in a surplus in the manufacturing trade balance that sees Italy ranked second only to Germany for manufacturing in Europe. The country’s leading accomplishments in the arts, culture and design are internationally recognized, while creativity in its broadest sense is an acknowledged Italian forte.

          Yet Italy finds it very difficult to muster and harness its creative talents. Similarly, the country struggles to bring its ideas to the market. Figures show that the proportion of research conducted by the private sector is below the average for Western countries. In addition, there is a low level of scientific culture among the general public and Italian institutions. Basic curiosity-driven research is not appropriately valued, and innovation tends to be more incremental than groundbreaking. At an industry level, managerial culture is often lacking, while the ambitions of small business owners to expand come up against structural problems and a reluctance to dilute ownership interests. Finance, even when available, is not channeled effectively, and there is evidence of an inability to compete for funding at European and international standards. In terms of the labor market, there is a worrying mismatch between skills supply and demand. Moreover, these factors are compounded by: slow and complex bureaucratic procedures, epic delays in the judicial system, and regulatory uncertainty. The net result is that many gifted Italians are still opting to take their talents abroad.

          The participants thus pointed to a number of measures that could be taken to remedy these systemic weaknesses. In order to address the finance shortage, it was considered not only necessary to increase the funds available, but also to improve the ability to compete at international levels so as to win bids for funding. In addition, the rationale underpinning certain types of funding – still beholden to old patronage welfarist mindsets, especially in the South of the country – was particularly singled out for change, with an insistence that such funds should instead apply more selective and meritocratic processes. This implies the need to identify successful experiences and researchers worthy of continued support, while cutting off the flow of resources to undeserving recipients. There were also calls for efforts to be made to attract the creative individuals who have left Italy in droves for India, China and Korea back to the country. In this regard, it was suggested that a well-thought-out immigration policy would make a vital contribution towards evening out the numbers of incoming and outgoing talent.

          Further cited was the country’s need to learn how to market itself as a brand – as well as the “Made in Italy” label – much more effectively. The participants also underlined the necessity of promoting scientific culture and fostering an aptitude for innovation, particularly among the school-age population. Continuing in an educational vein, the vocational training system was seen as requiring a major overhaul, with the suggestion that the German model could serve as a useful guide in this regard. Institutional reforms were considered pivotal in order for the country to attract investment, talent and finance – all of which entails simplifying bureaucratic procedures, furnishing legal and regulatory certainty, reaffirming the ethical and civic component of processes and institutions that make up the innovation ecosystem, and becoming adept at choosing between sectors, institutions, localities and researchers based on merit.

          It was stressed that in the innovation game, Italy is not a stand-alone player, but an integral part of a wider and more complex European ecosystem. Scientific and technological research is one of the few areas where the EU can formulate separate policies, in implementation of which it is able to spend a substantial share of its budget. Italy contributes to EU research funds, but fails to attract a sufficient number of projects and researchers. Hence, it is essential that Italy learns how to compete in European funding tenders, in order to ensure that some of this contribution flows back to the country.

          Reference was made during the debate to a number of initiatives already underway that follow up on research produced by working groups within the Italian Talent Abroad community. Further concrete proposals were also put forward aimed at achieving specific objectives, namely: 1) improving Italy’s image abroad; 2) overhauling PhD programs in Italy by strengthening their links with international institutions; 3) cultivating a scientific culture in future schooling that rewards innovative approaches; and 4) boosting the capacity of firms and researchers to participate in European tenders.

          In conclusion, it was observed that if creativity is a synthesis of imagination and concrete application, then while the country certainly has no lack of the former, it must take steps to strengthen the latter. To that end, given the complex world of modern-day science and knowledge, the giftedness of individual Italians must be harnessed into collective talent.

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