What is a National Research Agency? Conduct: A National Research Agency is a national and international research funding and coordination body, independent from the relevant ministries. If we look around, almost every country has at least one. Except for Italy, which has now decided to set it up. This is undoubtedly good news, very good news. And let us, at least for a moment, be pleased that our country will also have a technical structure for the orderly management of research funding according to government directives.
There is no shortage of models for this ambitious project. The United States was one of the first to set up not one but two research agencies. The National Science Foundation (NSF) calls itself: "an independent federal agency created by Congress in 1950 to promote the advancement of science; to promote national health, prosperity and well-being; to ensure national defense..."
With an annual budget of $8.1 billion (2019), it funds 24% of all federal basic research conducted by American colleges and universities in fields such as mathematics, computer science and social sciences.
In the USA, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) are responsible for funding biomedical research. There are 27 institutes, but they are coordinated by a central body, currently directed by the scientist who completed the sequencing of the human genome, Francis Collins. To use their words:
NIH is the world's largest public contributor to biomedical research, investing more than $30 billion from taxpayers to fulfil its mission to improve health, extend life, and reduce disease and disability. In doing so, NIH promotes prevention and treatment, contributes to society by stimulating economic growth and productivity, and broadens the biomedical knowledge base by funding cutting-edge research and cultivating the biomedical workforce of today and tomorrow.
In the UK, the Research Agency is called UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), a new body that governs the seven Research Councils and the other two bodies, Innovate UK and Research England. UKRI is to all intents and purposes the engine of British research, which it funds with about 7 billion pounds a year in connection with universities, research institutes, businesses, non-profit organizations and governments "to create the best possible environment for the development of research and innovation".
It is not a ministry, but an agency governed by research managers and a board of top researchers.
The Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) is Germany's leading research funding agency, supporting it with an autonomous (growing) budget of €3.4 billion (2018) through scholarships, awards and infrastructure funding. The autonomous organisation is based in Bonn and is financed by the Land and the federal government. Since 2017, the organisation has coordinated around 100 research universities and other research institutes. The 2018 activity report focuses mainly on funding for research excellence, which Germany wants to strengthen in order to better compete internationally.
The Agence Nationale de la Recherche (ANR) was established in 2005 both to fund research and innovation through calls for proposals and projects and to improve "the positioning of French research at European and global level". It is again a technical body separate from the policy and implements its programming, which remains the responsibility of the Ministry. For example, the 2020 Action Plan "integrates the strategic priorities defined by the State and the implementation of government plans, which are: artificial intelligence, human and social sciences, quantum technologies, antimicrobial resistance, autism in the context of neurological development disorders and translational research on rare diseases".
Like the other agencies, the NRA also has the task of analysing the supply of research and measuring the impact of funded projects on national scientific production. The budget for 2018 has reached almost 800 million euros after a few years of marked decline.
The Swiss National Science Foundation (SFN) is the country's largest research funding agency. Created in 1952, it is a private law body with the task of evaluating and financing research in all sectors with competitive instruments, both at home and abroad. The budget for 2018 was CHF 1,138 million (around EUR 1 billion). Its main tasks are to promote scientific excellence, to establish international relations and to evaluate the scientific results of both the projects financed by the Fund and the main Swiss research programmes.
The last to join the club of agencies is Spain, which in 2015 created the Agency Estatal de Investigacion (AEI), which went into operation in 2016 and had a portfolio in November 2017. The purpose of this "financing agency" is to "simplify the management of available funds, reduce administrative burdens and simplify and standardise procedures, and monitor research funding".
In this case, it is an autonomous structure established within the Ministry of University and Research, which has as its president the Secretary General of State for Research, Development and Innovation, appointed by the King on the recommendation of the Minister of Research, while the Director General is appointed by the Minister of Economy. The budget for 2018 is 640 million euros out of the total budget for the "Fomento y coordinación de la investigación científica y técnica" of 2 billion and 980 million euros.
And in Italy?
Let's go back to Italy and the last announcement of the establishment of the Agency by Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte last October 15. To quote Conte's words:
The National Agency for Research will be included in the budget maneuver. It will have a very important function, to coordinate all research and innovation activities in Italy, then the university centers, public research centers and private research institutions. Through the Agency we will strengthen the research system, but not so much and only in terms of some additional funding that we will bring to the benefit of the world of research, but in terms of a tool to network, to make system.
Words that leave open various interpretations. The 2003 Research Group, which is the Agency's ideal godfather, has always insisted on one thing: not inventing things different from all existing research agencies. That is to say that they are funding agencies with an autonomous budget, independent of politics, managed by research managers and scientific advisors and possibly transversal to the various ministries that provide funds for research. As Silvio Garattini explained at the 2003 Group conference in 2016, ideally all resources for competitive research funding should flow into this agency, which should be divided into departments (not disciplinary but thematic) and translate into calls for proposals and targeted allocations the policy guidelines developed by the policy. To these functions should be added, as for the agencies mentioned above, the international reports and the monitoring of the results. "It seems utopian, I know. But utopias must be pursued," Garattini concluded at the time.
It has become fundamental for Italian research to be able to count on an agile, autonomous and efficient structure that gives oxygen to researchers with continuity and certain times, according to transparent logic. We researchers are often too shy, but in reality we don't ask for impossible things. We only ask to be a normal country.