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Science, a feminine noun. Interview with Luciana Vaccaro

Science, a feminine noun. Interview with Luciana Vaccaro

25/02/2020

Luciana Vaccaro

It is not true that men are superior to women in mathematics, and science proves that. However, what needs to be done has to start with children in advance of preconceptions, offering positive models of women who have had professional success and personal satisfaction in science. That is what Luciana Vaccaro thinks, a career physicist at CERN and current dean of HES-SO, one of the foremost universities of applied science in Switzerland.

What do you think of the science education of the Italian students who come to study at HER-SO?

I think high schools offer a good level of preparation in both classical and scientific studies. I went on to study physics despite the fact that my focus was on classical studies at high school. Of course, a few more hours of math would not have hurt me, although I didn’t have any problem later on at university. Italian college graduates are, in any case, excellent, with a remarkable level of general cultural preparation, which is the reason for the “brain drain” that so plagues Italy. I fear, however, that a one-way exodus of minds could lead to a gradual lowering of the country’s academic training, and that’s why something has to be done, and immediately.

Is there a gender disparity that discourages girls from choosing scientific careers?

There is in Italy, and all over Europe. Italian women, however, fight back by adopting avant-garde attitudes. I was 25 when I started at CERN. The director of the center told me that the only women there were Italian, Greek and Spanish. That’s because emancipation came and still comes for the women of southern Europe through education. Many scientific careers are still viewed as being the realm of men, so if I have only 10 women out of every 100 good students that means I have left out at least 40 excellent women. It means depriving ourselves of talent and losing competitive edge.

How can we begin to reverse the trend?

I think it is essential to propose positive success models. If you ask students to name the most important female physicist in history, they will probably answer Marie Curie, forgetting the fact that an Italian woman – Fabiola Gianotti – is the Director-General of CERN! We need to eliminate stereotypes by offering highly varied models of success. Samantha Cristoforetti, for example, has a son, but that hasn’t stopped her from achieving major results.

When I enrolled in physics, my own mother said, “now you’ll never get married”. Instead, it is fundamental to show girls that they can have a future in science and that that does not mean giving up other aspects of life. Scientific research shows that there are no neuronal differences that prove males have more mathematical aptitude than females. Girls have to be involved from a young age before prejudices takes root in their brains. That is why it is crucial to form an alliance between the school system and universities in order to help familiarize younger students with important technical and scientific instruments, such as coding.  We are doing just that and seeing excellent receptivity.

You are on the Swiss National Fund for Scientific Research’s Advisory. Could the Swiss model work for Italy?

Italy has chosen a route different to that of Switzerland. Italy’s advanced technical institutes (ITS) are super-specialized, where in Switzerland we have a university approach that includes research. I think this difference is what shows the structural diversity of courses of study in Italy as compared with those of Central/Northern Europe. In Switzerland, as in the countries of northern and continental Europe, there is a secondary stream of compulsory post-graduate internships. Italy must bridge this gap; the introduction of advanced technical institutes is something positive.

Of course, Switzerland is wealthy, and when you’re rich it’s easier to fund research. Switzerland invests 3.9% of GNP in research, leaving Italy a lot to catch up on with 1.5% of GNP invested in university training, research included, which places us behind countries such as France and Spain that are up to 2.2%

Such an under-funded system has serious problems. I have certainly seen some improvements in assessments for the allotment of funds, but a greater effort is still needed. Research and education are not an expense but an investment in future capital. The public sector’s role in this is critical and the Swiss system is proof of that: Switzerland in a country of immigrants and its excellent level of education has been a highly effective aid in ascending the social ladder. If the public sector works, private investments in projects are made more willingly.

The Swiss National Fund grants approximately one billion a year. These are public monies, even though the Fund is independent and its decisions are made on a scientific and competitive basis. Italy has no such fund, and I think it is essential that one be introduced as soon as possible, both in order for intervention and allotment times to be compatible with the speed at which research is advancing, and because the absence of this type of instrument is a barrier to partnerships and bilateral agreements with other national funds. The Swiss fund co-finances projects in France, Germany and Austria and cannot do so in Italy, where it is only possible to work with European tenders.

 

 

Luciana Vaccaro, Doctor of Science Research at the Ècole Polytechnique Fédérale (EPFL) of Lausanne, studies in Naples. She began her career at CERN and was later appointed Maître-assistante at the Institut de Microtechnique dell’Università of Neuchâtel. In 2013, she was made Dean of HES-SO, an institution that boasts 21,000 students and 28 active schools in 6 fields of research and didactics. She has been a member since 2015 of the Advisory Board of the Fonds National Suisse (FNS), and in April 2019 became Vice President of Innosuisse, a Swiss agency for the promotion of innovation.