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  1. Politics
3 June 2011

Where have all the Italians gone?

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

By Emanuelle Degli Esposti

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.

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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.