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Aiuta Gli Scienziati

The abrupt collapse of Italy's government last week has led to concerns that research funding for the country's scientific community, which has already been delayed, could be put on hold again, Nature News reports.

The nationalist Lega party of deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini cut ties from its coalition partner, the anti-establishment M5S party, known as the Five Star Movement. If one of the coalition partners in unable to form a government with others in the Italian parliament, the country will need to hold a new election.

But while President Sergio Mattarella oversees that process, he also needs to use his power to keep the government's promise to Italy's scientific community that austerity in research funding would end, Nature News says. 

The coalition government had promised to return funding for universities to 2009 levels of around €7.5 billion ($8.3 billion), and had promised to increase the size of a smaller fund for research institutes, known as the FOE, which has consistently been cut since 2013, according to Nature News. These would be modest increases, but could have been used to pay for everything from salaries to utility bills.

Nature News also notes that Italy's wider economic woes have led to the country exceeded European Union limits on the size of its borrowing. If the government can't cut €23 billion from public spending, it will need to raise the value-added tax to 25 percent from its current rate of 22 percent. This would increase the pressure on research budgets. 

But even though Italy's spending on research and development — around 1.3 percent of its GDP — is far below the EU average of 2 percent, its research performance is improving, Nature News says. Between 2000 and 2016, Italy's share of published scientific papers rose to 4 percent from 3.2 percent, and the number of publications as a fraction of spending on research is welly above the EU average.

In his resignation speech to Italy's senate, prime minister Giuseppe Conte from the Five Star movement spoke about the need to invest more in research and to establish a national agency for research, Nature News says, adding that Mattarella should use his moral authority to protect promised funds and scholarly autonomy in the next administration.