Where have all the Italians gone?

What Italy's 'brain drain' says about the state of the country as a whole.

According to nearly all analyses, Italy is in trouble. Not just because this nation of rich cultural history -- of Dante, Michaelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci -- has been reduced to twee stereotypes of pizza-making, spaghetti-eating, money-laundering mamma's boys. But because the corrupt and nepotistic nature of the some of the country's bureaucracy -- not to mention the almost farcical antics of its ruling elite -- have left it in an economic, social and political mess.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the nation's universities, where students and researchers alike wallow for years in obscurity, many taking the first opportunity available to leave and seek their fortune elsewhere.

According to some estimates, at least 20 per cent of all Italian researchers are currently living and working abroad. (Full disclosure: my father is one such exiled Italian academic, who has spent the past ten years complaining vehemently about the miserable weather in Britain and hankering after fresh gelato and home-made pasta. Indeed, he so missed the company of his fellow country-men that in 2008 he became one of the founding members of the Virtual Italian Academy (VIA), an online community of exiled Italian scientists that seeks to unite such kindred spirits in the dual pursuits of science and nationalistic nostalgia).

That people are leaving the country is not in itself wholly surprising. The nature of scientific research often involves international collaborations, and it is not unusual for those working in the sciences to transfer overseas to pursue further research opportunities. The real problem is that this outflow of academics from the country is not being compensated by an influx of foreign researchers -- according to VIA, only 2 per cent of scientists currently working in Italy come from abroad.

The net effect of this, then, is that Italy is experiencing a 'brain drain', where the flow of talent seems inexorably fixed in one direction: out of the country.

True, other countries in Europe (and indeed in the developing world) also suffer from the same problem, but Italy is the only Western European country where the number of intellectuals leaving the country so grossly outweighs those coming in. The fact that a wealthy, developed nation with such a rich cultural history is being slowly leeched of its talent is a highly troubling development.

Because the sad truth of the matter is that the system that has failed its own people also fails to attract new talent to its shores. High levels of corruption, low spending on academic research and a convoluted and frustrating bureaucratic system mean that foreign brains end up looking elsewhere.

So, what can be done? Unfortunately, unless something gives in the system it is unlikely that Italy's brain drain can be reversed any time soon. The country needs to make itself attractive to outsiders (and this applies all over the spectrum, not just in academic fields) before it can start creating a future for itself. Whether it will be able to do this, however, is another question.

Emanuelle Degli Esposti is a freelance journalist currently living and working in London. She has written for the Sunday Express, the Daily Telegraph and the Economist online.

Emanuelle Degli Esposti is the editor and founder of The Arab Review, an online journal covering arts and culture in the Arab world. She also works as a freelance journalist specialising in the politics of the Middle East.

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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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