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Nobel laureate opposes cuts to research spending in Italy's 2007 budget

Nobel Prize winning scientist and senator Rita Levi-Montalcini has come out against planned cuts to university and research spending in Italy's 2007 budget.

The 97-year-old senator said she would consider abstaining from voting on the 2007 budget when it comes to the upper ...

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Nobel Prize winning scientist and senator Rita Levi-Montalcini has come out against planned cuts to university and research spending in Italy's 2007 budget.

The 97-year-old senator said she would consider abstaining from voting on the 2007 budget when it comes to the upper house, unless the amendments on research spending are removed. Her vote may prove decisive since the government has a guaranteed majority of just one seat in the senate against the opposition.

On first inspection of the budget, it is hard to see where the problem lies. The Italian government say that a total €2.5 billion will be spent on basic research over the next three years. Additional funds of €177.5 million will be set aside to tackle the country's brain drain, of which €140 million will go to providing long-term contracts for researchers in universities, while €37.5 million would be allocated to researchers working in public research institutes. It is hoped that these funds will go some way to retaining many of the estimated 12,000 Italian scientists who leave the peninsula each year.

However, on closer inspection, one bone of contention comes to the fore. This is the government's plan to reduce the intermediate administrative costs of universities and research institutes by 20%. University rectors and the research community say that while welcoming the additional funds to secure the human resources needed, the proposed cuts will have a paralysing impact on their organisations.

With a 20% cut, Guido Fabiani, President of the National Institute of Nuclear Physics says he will be forced to close laboratories and cut research activities. 'I will have to cut by 20% spending on various expenses, building maintenance, library acquisitions, laboratory refurbishments, given that I clearly cannot cut wages,' he told the Italian daily newspaper, La Repubblica.

'In our case, 50% of our budget goes on wages, 25% covers the costs of the laboratories, ranging from the acquisition of materials to cleaning, only 25% is left for real research, for making new discoveries,' explained Fabio Pistella, President of National Council of Research (CNR).

The decision not to cover some of the everyday costs of these laboratories and research institutes may also have a knock-on-effect on participating in the forthcoming Seventh Framework Programme (FP7), since universities and laboratories must be able to co-finance the projects. 'After years of preparation, we will be left out [of the framework programme],' said Dr Pistella.

Minister for Universities and Scientific Research, Fabio Mussi said that the year ahead was difficult and there was a need to put public accounts back on a sound footing. However, he accepted that Italy could not risk falling behind its European neighbours in terms of research and development. 'This is a 'thin' year. Everyone must make sacrifices. We can also remain substantially still, even in fields from which depend the real quality and solidity of development in the entire world. But if we lag behind, goodbye, it's over,' he warned.

Referring to Prof Levi-Montalcini's potential abstention from voting on the budget, Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi said: 'I heard her statements. I think that they are a fair, but untimely warning because we are leaving no stones unturned to find the resources to finance research. Therefore, they can't be justified as a final alarm. I'd rather take them as a recommendation and a warning.'

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Italy