From Trieste to Africa: interview with Mario Giro

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The relationships between science and international politics are a hot topics at the moment and there are several key players in this field. One of them is Mario Giro, Undersecretary of the Foreign Ministry in the Italian Government.

He was born in 1958 in Rome. After his studies in Italianistics at Università La Sapienza, he entered the Community of Sant'Egidio, a public lay association recognized by the Catholic Church that, since the late '70s, has been known as one leading forum for international peace talks, such as those regarding the Mozambiquan civil war, the Balkans, Algeria and Congo. Mario Giro has been involved in most of these peace talks, and so, in 1998, he became the Head of the International Relations of the Community of Sant'Egidio, mostly dealing with Africa. For his efforts towards peace, he was awarded in 2010 of the Prize for Conflict Prevention by Fondation Chirac. Then, in 2012, he became Advisor for Andrea Riccardi when the Head of the Community of Sant'Egidio was nominated as the Italian Ministry for International Cooperation. Finally, in May 2013 he became Undersecretary of the Foreign Ministry, in charge of South America, Subsaharian Africa and the promotion of the Italian Language. On February 2014 Mario Giro has been reconfirmed in his position by the new Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.

In May 2014, the Italian Foreign Ministry hosted an important event, called “Africa and Italy: Scientific Cooperation for Sustainable Development”. The meeting focused on the importance of the scientific cooperation in strengthening the African development. Some of the most prominent personalities from Italy and Africa have met the Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Federica Mogherini, together with the ambassador Mamadou Kamara Dékamo, from the Republic of the Congo, who has represented the African diplomatic corps, Mariém Aouffa, representative of the African Union, and the TWAS Executive Director Romain Murenzi, former Minister of the Education of Rwanda. Undersecretary Mario Giro was present at the meeting. We asked him about Italian scientific cooperation programs, Africa and the role of science in the international relations. 

In the last years, Italy seems to be particularly active in promoting its scientific cooperation policies, as for instance the Meeting with Scientific attachés and the recent “Africa-Italia” meeting. What will be next?

We are focusing on the 50th anniversary of the ICTP, in October, in order to create an important arena to put in contact the international scientific community located in Trieste.

Does Italy has a defined science diplomacy?

The Ministry promotes three main objectives regarding science diplomacy: to support the geopolitical needs of our foreign politics; to support jobs creation, by promoting our innovative companies abroad; finally, to support the dialogue in politically unstable areas or countries. This in a long-term view. But today, bearing in mind the economic crisis, we tried to focus our efforts to promote international research projects and researchers mobility (both from and to Italy): this, for example, happened recently with China and Brasil.

Which instruments does the Foreign Ministry use for Italian science diplomacy?

We have our network of scientific attachés, coordinated by a dedicated unit at the Ministry, which is appointed to build the mid-long term strategy. From the financial point of view, the Ministry put an average 4 million euro per year (in the last 5 years) to support the internationalization of our scientific research. This includes the Bilateral Agreement on scientific and industrial cooperation with Israel. Moreover, we dedicate other financial resources in supporting international scientific organizations, such as ICTP or TWAS.

Someone could say that, before putting money on international programmes, Italy should devote resources to help the national scientific research system. What is your opinion?

A cosmopolitan scientific community is not a zero-sum game: every scientific finding is a great new opportunity for the whole humanity. Thousands of scientists and researchers from more than one hundred countries have been educated over the past decades in Trieste, or have had the opportunity to develop their scientific knowledge there, through a constructive dialogue with experts from other countries. Once back in their country of origin, many of them have formed the new recruits and several foreign researchers, “adopted” by Trieste, today stand in prestigious positions, defining the overall scientific agenda.

ICTP, ICGEB, TWAS, Area Science Park and SISSA: all these form the so-called “Sistema Trieste”, maybe one of the most active system in which science diplomacy is put in practice. But many Italians barely know its existence. Do you think that Sistema Trieste is undervalued by the Italian Government?

I would add the ICRANET in Pescara, so we can define an Adriatic dorsal of the excellence in scientific research. They all are international organizations with a multilateral governance, therefore Italy cannot decide or use them by its own. Nevertheless, it is true that this Adriatic dorsal is underutilized in relation with the Italian scientific system.

For many decades you have been dealing with Africa, a fast changing continent. Which is the Italian science diplomacy towards Africa?

We are focusing on emerging countries, such as Nigeria or South Africa. I guess that Sistema Trieste could take the celebration of the 50th year of ICTP as an opportunity for the African, European and Italian scientific community to dialogue together. In this occasion, they can start a deep thinking that could lead, in 2015, to guidelines and scientific cooperation programmes between Italy and Africa, through Europe.

Africa is becoming an example of “bottom-up” science, namely scientists and direct stakeholders that group together to do scientific research. This model is particularly suitable for agronomy or health. Do you think this is a good model of cooperation?

All the developing countries are increasing their investment in R&D and now more than one third of the world's research takes place in these countries. The bottom-up model of cooperation is one of the leading trend. In Africa, for example, through the bottom-up model, Malawi has increased agricultural productivity, Zambia, Senegal and Uganda have improved access to health services, and Niger started a reforestation program. But bottom-up is not the solely way: since it is not simply to imitate and adapt scientific knowledge already developed elsewhere, Rwanda, Uganda and Nigeria are investing in frontier technologies from telecommunications to biotechnology. At the same time, the political attention to science is enhancing, as, for instance, in 2002 was created the Committee of Presidents for science or the African Union, which devoted a summit to science in 2007. Despite the progress, we still need to work in order to promote science education in Africa among women and young people, and to ensure the commitment of the African Union that at least 1 percent of GDP in every country will be invested in scientific research.

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