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Italy’s new coalition government has announced plans to set up the country’s first National Agency for Research (Agenzia Nazionale per la Ricerca – ANR), the status of which should be approved at the beginning of 2020. Currently, Italy’s state research grants are administered by several ministries (e.g. Ministry of Education, Universities and Research, Ministry of Health, of Defence, of Environment, etc.), an approach which had been critiqued for suffering, amongst others, from a lack of transparency, discontinuity between funding periods and for very lengthy times for processing the applications, with some researchers having to wait for up to two years to receive the project grants. ANR is likely to be equipped with a budget EUR 25 million in 2020, EUR 200 million in 2021 and EUR 300 million per year from 2022, and to employ up to 34 staff. The agency should become operational in 2020, and be entrusted with handling the highly-strategic projects, to look into methods for evaluating the impact of projects, and to help with the internationalisation of Italian research, which is then expected to improve the country’s performance in European research grants and programmes.
The creation of an independent agency, which the Italian scientific community had been advocating towards for a long time, seems nevertheless to already fall short of expectations. The size of the budget is the first point of disapproval by the Italian scientific community, the latter claiming the budget is too small to help Italy reduce its research and innovation gap compared to other countries. Under the current plans, the ministries now in charge of managing research funding would in fact continue to do so also in the future, with ANR to handle only part of the state funds in this area.
The proposed system of appointment of the director of the agency and of its board of directors is also heavily criticised for placing the agency under too great political influence. The director would be appointed by the Italian Prime Minister, while the board of directors by several ministries, with the Conference of Italian University Rectors (CRUI) and the National University Council (CUN) making only 2 of the 8 board nominations. The agency seems to be modelled after its French counterpart – the Agence Nationale de la Recherche – where the top appointments are also political. However, the latter also has a powerful Scientific Committee (Comité de Pilotage Scientifique), formed of French and international scientists, deemed to be more immune to political interference.
It remains to be seen if any changes will be made in response to the reactions of the Italian scientific community before officially launching the agency next year.