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Nepotism and lack of meritocracy drive away valuable talent trained at considerable cost

by Marco Magnani

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Italy has a strong tradition as a country of emigrants. It is thought that the approximately 60 million Italians living in the peninsula are accompanied by as many abroad. In the past, our country has exported many “arms” looking for work; in recent decades, the outflow was mainly of “brains”: researchers, doctors, artists, entrepreneurs, managers, skilled workers. This is not about brain exchange but brain drain: the net flow of highly qualified human resources is heavily biased towards the outflow.

The trend has worsened significantly in recent years, because of the economic crisis and the spread among the young people of a general lack of confidence in the country's future. According to a study by Editutto, from 2002 to 2012 about 68,000 graduates a year left Italy, for a total of almost 700,000 young people. The cost of their education is estimated at €8-9 million, roughly as much as the University funding for a year. The 2015 Istat report noted that among the PhD students the phenomenon is reaching worrying levels: 3,000 PhD graduates in 2008 and 2010 (12.9%) habitually live abroad, nearly six points more compared to the previous survey (7% of PhD graduates in the 2004 and 2006 cohorts).

Those who pack their bags are mainly physicists, mathematicians and computer scientists.
In the face of these outflow data, the ability to attract talent from other countries is very limited. The economic cost of a negative balance of intellectual mobility is huge. The export of qualified human capital not only is a waste of talent, but also of the investments made to train them. In fact, the innovations produced by brain drain will be owned by the countries in which they are made, and from which Italy somehow will have to buy them back. A result of brain drain is the so-called “reverse technology transfer”, and not surprisingly, Italy shows a deficit in the “technological balance of payments” which measures imports and exports of patents and technical knowledge. There are also costs related to “brain waste”, connected to the people who remain in their homeland doing a job other than the one for which they were educated.

What to do? Containing qualified emigration by imposing constraints and adopting coercive policies is an unfeasible hypothesis in a global economy. It would be more useful to remove some of the underlying problems in the academic world and in employment by combating nepotism and “baronismo” (ed. the exercise of one's prestige or authority), supporting merit and transparency, and eliminating rigidity. Enhancing the important tradition of university and research in our country is an opportunity. The university system is one of the oldest in the world, with Bologna, Parma and Pavia now close to the millennium; Italy, apart from having contributed to the greatest scientific discoveries of the last 150 years, has a long and recognized tradition of creativity and innovative entrepreneurial thinking, with a major impact on the world's technology. Suffice it to recall Guglielmo Marconi's radio, Federico Faggin's microchip, and Olivetti's personal computers.

Another important way is to focus on the centers of excellence that Italy still has to retain and attract talent. It is a strategy which requires considerable investments, but that can be pursued successfully, as demonstrated by the Italian Institute of Technology in Genoa. With about €100 million of state funding per year (and other €25 million collected on the market), since 2003 the IIT has attracted around 1,000 researchers from all over the world, produced more than 3,000 publications and hundreds of inventions and patents, and is a pioneer in areas such as robotics, neuroscience, cognitive science and nanostructures.
There is another card not to underestimate, which could be played by Italy to compensate, at least partially, the negative balance in intellectual mobility: making better use of the network of Italians abroad. In other words, developing the “relational capital” of Italian brains in the world. The extension of the network is significant, and its quality extremely high. Various studies have highlighted the potential knock-on effect of the diaspora of knowledge workers, with particular reference to developing countries and provided that the most advanced countries promote cooperation between the “brains” they host and their communities of origin.

In this sense, the Indian experience in the implementation of the “network” strategy is very interesting. Over the past two decades, India has enhanced the relations with many Indians living abroad, especially in the United States and the UK. The strategy was facilitated, among other things, by the extraordinary growth rates of the country, the improvement of international relations, the reinforcement of the economic and strategic alliance with the United States as a means to contain China.

The results have been extraordinary. Italy is not India: the dimensions - geographic and demographic - are lower and the economy is developed rather than emerging. The networking action can not therefore be developed in the same terms. However, there are so many ways to awaken and value the relationship with the countries of origin. This would help to think of the Italian “brains” abroad as an opportunity to be rather than an escape with no return.