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Research in Italy: low investments, excellent results

Scientist holding a molecular model 
Italy does not invest much in research: this is a recurring refrain in the press and on TV, and we’d better believe it, as it is based on OECD data. But would the picture change if instead of focusing on the amount of money spent in R&D we looked at the quality and outputs of research? Some interesting data are supplied by the International Comparative Performance of the UK Research Base 2013, the report produced by Elsevier for the UK government’s Department of Business, Innovation and Skills.

The report, which focuses on research quality indicators, is based on data from three different sources: OECD, for the data on the size of R&D investments; the Scopus database as to data on articles and citations; and, lastly, the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), a UN agency that gathers data on intellectual property and patents. While it focuses on the situation in the UK, the report also includes substantial comparative data for the main industrialised countries, including Italy. This allowed us to gather some important information on the quality of research in our country too.

The first surprising finding concerns Field-Weighted Citation Impact (FWCI). The FWCI is an indicator of the quality of academic papers based on the number of citations obtained by the articles of researchers from a given country, compared to the number of average citations in each of the scientific/disciplinary sectors covered by those articles. As to this indicator, Italy ranks third, as shown in figure 4.6. The sectors where Italian researchers’ papers are most cited, often reaching higher levels than other countries, are engineering (where the Italian FWCI is no less than double the world average), business, clinical and environmental sciences, as shown in figure 4.11.

Figure 4.6 - Italy’s Field Weighted Citation Impact

Figure 4.11 - Italy’s Field Weighted Citation Impact by scientific-disciplinary sector

As shown by figures 6.1 and 6.2, Italy achieves excellent results also as to the number of published papers and of citations compared to R&D investments (GERD), placing third as to both parameters.

Figure 6.1 - Number of published papers as a ratio to R&D investments

Figure 6.2 - Number of citations as a ratio to R&D investments

Italy achieves similar results also as concerns the number of published papers and number of citations compared to investments in university research only (HERD), as shown by figures 6.3 and 6.4. In these rankings, Italy achieves fourth place, on a par respectively with the UK (papers) and with the US (citations).

Figure 6.3 - Number of published papers as a ratio to investments in university research

Figure 6.4 - Number of citations as a ratio to investments in university research

But where Italy truly excels is in the productivity of its researchers. The data on the number of published papers and number of citations per researcher is the highest of all the countries covered by the report, as is shown by figures 6.5 and 6.6. As a word of caution, the report’s authors do point out that such a high result might indicate that the number of Italian researchers is underestimated.

Figure 6.5 - Number of published papers per researcher

Figure 6.6 - Number of citations per researcher

Another shining result, this time with no qualifications, concerns the number of start-ups and spin-offs established to develop or exploit commercially patented ideas and projects. Here too, we rank at the top, followed by the UK and Spain.

Figure 7.3 - Number of start-ups and spin-offs as a ratio to R&D investments

The last chart shows the mobility of researchers moving to or leaving our country: a pattern unique to Italy is that inflows mostly consist of researchers from industry who come to work at our universities, while most of our university researchers who move abroad find employment in foreign companies.

Figure 7.11 - Researcher mobility between university and industry

These data show that, especially when compared to the meagre level of public and private R&D investment, the quality of Italian scientific research is in fact outstanding. The number of published papers per researcher shows that our researchers are strikingly active and productive, while the high figure for FWCI demonstrates the high value of Italian research output, recognised both in Italy and abroad. Last but not least, the large number of start-ups and spin-offs again as a ratio to invested resources is a sign of an increasing drive towards translating the outputs of scientific research into business opportunities. Finally, while we export brains from our academic sector to the business world, this same sector is a source of foreign researchers who repopulate our universities.

The data and charts shown in this Article are taken from the report “International Comparative Performance of the UK Research Base – 2013”. The full report in pdf format can be downloaded from the UK Government’s official website.

Useful links
Gov.uk - Performance of the UK research base: international comparison 2013

Carlo Contu