The director of an international group of scientists conducting research into humanoid robots and intelligent materials at the Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia (IIT) in Genoa, Roberto Cingolani outlines the key features of this state-funded centre of excellence established in 2003 and comments on the present state of research in Italy.
How would you describe the working model at IIT? What distinguishes it from other European and global research centres? What are its strengths?
The IIT model is inspired by leading international research organisations, such as the Max Planck Institute and TNO in Europe; MIT, Scripps and Caltech in the USA; or Waseda in Japan. The scientific results of IIT are above the national average and in line with those of top research institutes worldwide. IIT’s biggest asset is undoubtedly its multidisciplinary and multicultural approach. At IIT, we have 1,500 researchers from about 60 countries, with over 20 different scientific profiles ranging from medicine to engineering. Another of the institute’s strengths is its recruitment process for researchers. Some years ago we introduced the Tenure Track procedure based on the recruitment policy of Harvard University. With this selection system, researchers are recruited via an assessment that is exclusively carried out by panels of external experts. Once selected, researchers have a specific period – from five to ten years – to demonstrate their ability to run a high-level research programme in their field. During this period, they are totally autonomous and responsible for their collaborators and research budget.
What is IIT’s place in the panorama of international research centres?
We work with all major research centres worldwide, and we also have two outposts at Harvard University and MIT in the USA.
What are IIT’s most promising areas of research? Which fields are your cornerstones?
Until now we’ve invested a great deal in robotics, nanotechnologies and new materials, and we’re among the world leaders in these fields. In recent years, topics related to “life sciences” have really come to the forefront, and they’re unquestionably set to gain even greater prominence. Nanomedicine, brain research and genomics are all immensely interesting fields on a global level, and our institute is enjoying excellent recognition from the international scientific community in these areas.
Has your platform helped to alleviate Italy’s brain drain? What is the proportion of Italian and international scientists at IIT?
IIT’s overall staff comprises around 1,550 people. Forty-five per cent of our researchers come from overseas. Of these, 29 per cent are foreigners from 58 countries, and 16 per cent are Italians who have returned. The average age of IIT’s personnel is 35 years old, with roughly 40 per women and 60 per cent men.
How do you rate the education and training of scientific researchers in Italy? Which are the top national and international educational centres?
There are several places in Italy that train researchers to be competitive on an international level. For example, the Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies and the Scuola Normale in Pisa, or the polytechnics in Milan, Turin and Bari, but also many universities such as La Sapienza in Rome, Federico II in Naples or the University of Genoa. The list could go on. In any case, in terms of training we’re competitive with big universities like Harvard, Stanford or Cambridge. Italian researchers aren’t lacking in training, but sometimes there can be problems with mentality.