Interview with Mr. Roberto Cingolani
Mr. Roberto Cingolani
Mr. Roberto Cingolani is Scientific Director of the Italian Institute of Technology (IIT), established in 2003 as a joint initiative of the Italian Ministry of Education, Universities and Research and the Ministry of Economy and Finance to promote excellence in basic and applied research in the country.
In this interview he explains what is new about IIT within the Italian innovation system and how he carries out his strategic vision with a view to making IIT an international leading centre in scientific research and advanced technology.
Italy's commitment to Technology-driven research
INSME: The Italian Innovation System is made up of a great variety of players, sometimes competing against each other.
Where does the IIT – the Italian Institute of Technology - stand in this system and what is new about it?
Mr. Cingolani: First of all, the IIT particularly ennobles technology research. The system you mentioned has produced remarkable achievements. Italy has many universities and research centres, many “brains” who carry out research in our own country and many of them who are much sought after abroad. Shortly: the Italian university system, despite its many problems, generates outstanding results.
This system, however, has mainly focused on basic research, while technology oriented research has been generally considered as a by-product. It is not so in other countries such as Germany, Japan and the United States, where you can find institutions that are strongly oriented towards applied research.
For the first time in Italy, with IIT we aim at carrying out technology-driven research, with a view to leading to something futuristic in the long run, of great prospects and able to create knowledge. But at the same time, in the short term this should bring results and provide solutions to problems in several fields: social, industrial, etc.
That said, two issues arise. The first one is the implementation of this strategy. If you want to create something competitive on international markets, you need to have a long-term vision, since you cannot work on technologies that are already being sold or have been already developed somewhere else in the world. Therefore we need to find something genuinely futuristic and including a high degree of novelty compared to what is already available at international level.
Second, this strategy has to be credible. For instance, creating a time-travelling machine is definitely a long-term technological innovation, but it is not credible.
So we have to find a compromise, an “in-between” solution. The programme designed for IIT has tried to combine deeply innovative activities which can lead to the creation of technologies that can be exploited in the short term. “Interdisciplinarity” is the keyword for the IIT project. We put together neurosciences, life sciences, robotics and nanotechnology to do perhaps science fiction things. But while creating them, we can test solutions which are immediately applicable and concrete.
This process implies a very high level of risk, but also a vision, the same vision you can find elsewhere in the world, since 5-6 laboratories follow this direction one of these is the Max Planck Institute in Germany.
Therefore, coming to the answer to your question: IIT holds a place which is complementary to that of other players in the industrial and university research scenario. At this moment in time, no one can afford such an inter-disciplinary programme within its own organisation. If this programme works, it will add something to the world of research, as it will ennoble technology and produce applications that could be useful today and for many years to come.
INSME: How far have you gone with the implementation of this programme? Are you already operational, or you are still in the start-up phase?
Mr. Cingolani: We are striving to work at two levels. On the one hand, we are preparing infrastructures for our 30,000 square meters building (of which 20,000 for laboratories). This means installing the appropriate equipment and adopting safety measures. What is interesting about this huge laboratory is that clean rooms, live surgery wards and robotics will coexist. It will be a very innovative facility. It will be among the top three largest facilities in the world. IIT laboratory has been created in order to host 350-400 researchers. There are currently 120 researchers, of whom 70 are Phd students: 35 of them are hosted in Genoa and 35 are in Milan and Pisa, where they are training. And here we come to that second level I was talking about: we are trying to develop a network between 9 satellites, selected in order to develop this project ahead of time.
INSME: Are you referring to the Multidisciplinary Research Network?
Mr. Cingolani: Exactly. You can find in it all the Italian research centres that have the best reputation in all relevant sectors [click here for a full list]. Thanks to their well-established competences developed at international level, they can already take part in the project and start developing it. So, while we equip the 20,000 square metre laboratory and recruit scientists (and this takes us a lot of time because the recruiting process is complex), the programme goes ahead. This is very important. We already have a couple of patents and dozens of IIT labelled publications, but it is the programme in particular that is growing. Our facilities in Genoa are largely operational, in particular the robotics section, and we have spent the past year and a half designing all the details concerning each laboratory to be included in it. We are undergoing a very operational phase, since our projects are ready and we are launching the relevant calls. Unfortunately, Italy has a public procurement law which does not help at this phase. If you need to buy a machine worth €200,000, which is a standard for us, you need to tender for it. This is a serious problem for us since 200,000 euro in the research field is only an entry amount. Moreover, you have to consider that our machines are not included in any catalogue. In most cases, the infrastructures we purchase are designed by large international companies and require a lot of work which in no way consists of choosing from a catalogue. Therefore, while we understand requirements and specifications (which have to be appropriate for 10 years, given IIT visionary approach), while we design spaces and equipments (which is quite complicated for such sizes), while we manage tenders, we start hiring researchers and carry out the project from the technical and scientific point of view.
INSME: Among these researchers, what is the percentage of Italians and of foreigners?
Mr. Cingolani: In our central laboratories approximately one third of researchers are foreigners, one third are young Italians and one third is made up of Italians coming back from abroad.
INSME: Can you tell us what their average salary is?
Mr. Cingolani: Their salary is higher than the average salary paid by the public research sector in Italy, it is slightly lower than the average salary paid by the most important American and European universities and research centres, which we used as a benchmark.
Just to give you an idea, a post-doc salary in Italy is comparable to a post-doc salary in Germany, that is 35,000-40,000 euros per year (gross salary). This is indeed an international standard which allows us to attract young researchers. The exact amount obviously depends on their seniority.
Moreover, we do not have permanent jobs. We offer positions on a project-contract basis (5 years). There are indeed attractive career opportunities, but at present, we do not have permanent employees because we believe that the real challenge lies in motivating young people to constantly improve themselves.
INSME: Concerning the choice of IIT headquarters, why was Genoa selected? Is there any advantage to be located in this area?
Mr. Cingolani: I was not involved in this choice, which actually was already adopted when I arrived here (October 2004). What I can say for sure is that local institutions have been extremely helpful. This has been a good occasion to grow for this area, and if the area understands how positive this novelty is, its effect will be certainly magnified. Judging by the help we have received from local institutions, the response has been excellent. Also consider that the Liguria region has a significant concentration of research centres and hospitals and, being a small region, you won’t waste your efforts when dealing with similar issues. From this point of view, I do believe this was a well motivated choice.
INSME: Coming back to the organisation issue, in an interview with the IIT president a special emphasis was put on the idea of building a lean and non bureaucratic organisation. The Multidisciplinary Research Network falls within this concept, doesn’t it?
Mr. Cingolani: That's a scientific concept. The Network is not currently linked to any aspect of the IIT's governance.
INSME: So, concerning IIT’s governance, what are the mechanisms put into place to ease your work from constraints?
Mr. Cingolani: We are still in a settling-in phase, and not every thing is perfect, as the IIT model is an innovative one. In order for you to understand how this model should work, let’s see how the Max Planck Institute works. When they decide to create a new centre at Max Planck, all must be done within 36 months. Within that span of time, they make the budget available, they make infrastructures available, they hire researchers. Within 3 years everything has to start.
The IIT has a similar approach, but there is a difference: IIT starts from zero. Therefore, during the three years it has to provide for all the procedures and regulations to comply with. At the same time, the scientific work has to be carried out. This is of course a great effort which requires a period of adjustment. Indeed we are settling in right now. As far as contracts are concerned, we are working well, because we are taking inspiration from the American hiring model. As far as purchases, labs and equipment are concerned, we have to comply with public sector regulations, therefore we do not have much freedom to act.
Everything is on-going. It’s difficult work, which, however, is worth doing because it can lead to excellent results from a technical and managerial point of view. Also from a social point of view. For example, consider the area in which we are located, where an economic collapse occurred during the past few decades. Today, thanks to our 400 researchers (which with their families make up 1000 individuals), this area is being economically recovered and revalued. The sociological impact of an increase of up to 15% in the population is very high. We couldn’t say the same if a similar project had taken place in a more crowded area or one in which incomes are higher.
INSME: Going back to research, is there a strategy aimed at increasing its results? Have you discussed this issue with entrepreneurs?
Mr. Cingolani: Yes, and I can say that we have received support even from people not directly interested in helping us. Many gave us their support in the endorsement phase. These were people who are sensitive to research themes and for this reason aware of the importance of our initiative. At present, we are looking into the possibility of interacting in joint projects, in order to exploit technologies that we already have in Genoa or rather within our Network, and we are preparing contract models so that these technologies can be exploited at their best.
We are not ready for being business oriented, but it is necessary that entrepreneurs come and work in our laboratories, see our equipment and build joint labs.
INSME: Do you mean that IIT laboratories could be used by businesses trying to innovate or to create new products?
Mr. Cingolani: I mean that we want to share efforts towards a goal that is of such a long term for a business that it cannot achieve it on its own, and at the same time so challenging that we are willing to take it on. The only thing that IIT cannot be is a problem solving tool for businesses, because it would be useless for both sides.
In this respect, I have some experience with the laboratory of nanotechnology in Lecce, where we created a strict relationship with entrepreneurs, which come and visit our lab, and in doing so they take inspiration, while researchers learn from businessmen that certain activities have to be directed towards specific applications. This model can be followed by the IIT Network. Ideal tools are the joint labs, where experts from research and industry can work together and transfer their know-how directly to businesses. Moreover, there is always the possibility of a spin-offs, and this case the market itself will decide whether it is a good idea or not.
INSME: What collaborations does the IIT have at international level?
Mr. Cingolani: First of all, we take advantage of the channels that members of the IIT Scientific Council open for us. These are high level personalities such as: Arakawa, Director of the Institute of Industrial Sciences of Tokyo; two Nobel award-winners, Greengard and Orowitz from MIT; Professor Khatib which is one of the major experts in the robotics field, from Stanford; Alivisatos, Director of the Molecular Fund of Berkeley; and Professor Veronesi, who is very well-known in Italy. I believe these are very important channels. The director of the Scientific Council is Professor Bizzi from MIT, an Italian expert who has been living in America for 40 years.
Do not forget that the Multidisciplinary Research Network itself has much consolidated international relations. Creating a network also means benefiting from the high reputation the network has, as well as from the large number of contacts it has.
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