The third meeting of the Life Sciences Technology Forum 2017 focused on the issue of governance within the context of life sciences research, and highlighted the importance of defining on a system-wide level new strategies and a perspective that is clear-cut and shared as a way of providing guidance to ecosystem players.

Now is the time to grasp the opportunities!

Planning is needed for effective governance

Innovation is not optional, it is the only possible road to growth for Italy.

In fact, at present, the life sciences sector is highly-fragmented, consisting of numerous public entities involved to various degrees in supporting and promoting research and innovation, but whose missions often overlap and, therefore, are not easy to differentiate between.

The starting point for effective research planning and, therefore, overcoming this hyper-fragmentation, must be the creation of an industrial strategy with long-term goals to ensure the best possible integration of available resources and allow Italy to make the most of its areas of excellence and become more competitive on an international level.

Other countries already have strategic plans designed to reinforce their industrial competitiveness and enhance their international leadership within the high-tech field. A case-in-point is Germany with its “High Tech Strategy for Germany” initiative and numerous programs to reinforce the country’s industrial competitiveness. Or the example of Great Britain which, in order to improve the global competitiveness of its advanced industrial supply chains, has created an “Industrial Strategy” focused on those sectors key to Britain’s growth. In all of the cases examined, however, support and capitalization on the role of research are an integral part of a medium/long-term guidance strategy in which life sciences constitute an important focus point for which there is a clear-cut, precise governance.

Only Italy is missing, and now is the time for it to enter the game.
Therefore, how can we make Italy the bio-pharmaceutical country of the future we would like? First of all, by exploiting the strong points of the system and, at the same time, working on signs of instability and uncertainty. 

Italy boasts high-level scientific output. It is the #1 country in the world for citations and research productivity in terms of researcher publications.

The data also show that the industry believes in Italy. It is the #2 European pharmaceuticals producer and is #1 in Europe in terms of growth of pharmaceuticals export.

On the other hand, however, investment in R&D is still too low (moreover, after years of growth, 2015 saw a reduction in its value). In fact, in 2015, Italy spent €21.9 billion in R&D, about the amount the German region of Baden Württemberg alone invested (€20.2 billion). Italy is also one of the countries with the lowest level of private investment. This means that, with a decidedly low level of investment, the ability to attract private investment is also low.

Similarly, technology transfer is also a critical area for Italy given its scarce economic and personnel resources, inadequate skill levels and low interest in patents.

Reaching the levels of excellence of Oxford or Cambridge would probably be difficult, but Italy could—and must—attempt to come into line with systems such as those of Leuven and Catalonia.

What is needed, then, is to start with competencies: “know-how” represents the competitive advantage to aim for!

Capitalizing on resources and excellence is absolutely key, as are seeing innovation and research not as a cost, but as value and creating an ecosystem favorable to innovation to attract resources.

Italy has international-level examples of excellence, such as Tigem (Telethon Institute of Genetics and Medicine), a research center founded in 1994 and headquartered in the Campania region. About 210 people are involved in it, with researchers from 14 different countries and a budget of approximately €16.5 million per year, as well as an excellent ability to raise funds.

While at the institute’s inception about 90% of its total resources were provided through funding from Telethon, today it represents only 28% of the budget, with the remaining coming from international competitive funds (36%), industrial funds (30%) and public funds (6%). More than 50% of their resources come from international organizations, and those in Europe and on the other side of the Atlantic. Since 1994, Tigem has received about €78 million in external (non-Telethon) funds, most of them from abroad.

The research center’s competitiveness is founded on its clear, shared strategy based on meritocracy, focused activity, ability to self-finance and an efficient and transparent management approach.

Recognition of Tigem’s success is tied, therefore, to its excellent results, despite the not very favorable national innovation ecosystem and a research system that is considered to be inadequate.  For example, compared with the number of its employees, Tigem has quite a low budget in which public funds have only a marginal impact (when in other European countries research institutes of excellence of the same type have budgets in which public funds account for 50%).

Research institutes perceive many lacunae in the way the research and innovation system works in Italy. Therefore, examining the reasons for this situation is fundamental.

What are the reasons why the Italian research system does not work?
  • There is no entity that defines short-, medium-, and, especially, long-term strategies.
  • There is no transparent and merit-based system that assesses researchers and research projects using a true “peer review” system.
  • Many public research bodies are “hamstrung” and tend to waste resources (they do not possess the tools that would make it possible to reward the scientific productivity of researchers and penalize those who are not productive).
  • Public financing for research is not only insufficient, but it is also distributed through “ad hoc” initiatives and not on a regular basis, rendering financing a very uncertain process.
Essentially, planning is inadequate.

Therefore, if Italy wants to be a high-speed train and not a steam locomotive, it must start to plan by defining a medium/long-term national research and innovation strategy that is closely tied to an industrial perspective through:

  • A clear-cut and shared medium/long-term perspective;
  • Definition of the tools, resources and regulations coherent with the medium/long-term goals;
  • Widespread culture oriented towards innovation.

An initiative of primary importance is also that of capitalizing on the high-tech clusters found throughout Italy to assure that they play a strategic and effective role in promoting and transferring scientific research.

Within this context it is also essential that public-private partnerships be supported and capitalized on, and that a single governmental point-of-reference be identified which will be responsible for defining priorities for research and innovation.

From this standpoint, the proposal of The European House – Ambrosetti is to create a National Research Agency that would overcome the problem of fragmentation by bringing together responsibilities that today are held by a range of public bodies and which, above all, would guarantee a unified perspective in terms of policy and guidance. Therefore, it must be a body capable of delegating, as well as possessing resources and competencies in order to assure a plan of action that is dependable and continuous.

An interesting example in this context is France that has developed a governance model for its research and innovation system that is coherent and straight-forward in which there is direct communication between public and private players.

Within this framework, the definition of research policy is the responsibility of the Minister of Education, Universities and Research, while the selection of priority themes is that of the National Research Agency (NRA). The NRA is a public entity under the direct control of the Ministry of Higher Education, Research and Innovation and its goal is to increase the competitiveness and influence of French research in Europe and throughout the world. It is organized into eight scientific departments, including one dedicated to health and biology, one to promoting public/private cooperation, and one to exploratory and cutting-edge research themes. Since 2005, it has allocated more than €5 billion for research projects.

Of fundamental importance in the French context are the competitiveness clusters—R&D centers designed to develop new products and processes—that include collaboration between large companies, SMEs, research centers and local government. On one hand, they implement the output of the NRA in terms of national policy, and at the same time direct strategy. To-date there are 71 and since 2005 they have financed 889 research projects and have received nearly €2 billion in financing.

This could be the formula to direct and support research and innovation in life sciences in Italy.
This is the moment to pass from words to action.


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