Referendum StopTrivelle: il Diavolo è nei Dettagli

Gli argomenti dei sostenitori del referendum del prossimo 17 aprile sembrano puro buonsenso, ma un’intervista a Mario Tozzi – sostenitore del “Sì” – mi ha convinto del contrario. Mettere sullo stesso piano petrolio e gas naturale è sbagliato dal punto di vista delle politiche climatiche. 

Secondo i promotori del referendum “No Trivelle” del 17 Aprile 2016, l’Italia deve smettere di estrarre idrocarburi dalle aree marine. I benefici economici non compensano per i rischi ambientali derivanti da queste attività estrattive e, per di più, dobbiamo finalmente entrare nell’era dell’energia pulita. Gli idrocarburi non devono far parte del nostro futuro.

Come non essere d’accordo? Persino il geologo e divulgatore scientifico Mario Tozzi è dalla parte del “Sì”, cioè del “No Trivelle” (attenti a non confondervi quando voterete!). In una intervista a Radio Popolare Tozzi, di cui ho grande stima, spiega la sua ragione per il “Sì”: Le fonti fossili sono roba vecchia, serve una svolta. Penso subito che ogni ulteriore approfondimento sia inutile. Come potrei dissentire da Mario Tozzi?

L’illuminante intervista a Mario Tozzi

Il paradosso è che Tozzi è un geologo ma la sua principale tesi a supporto del “Sì” è da economista, campo nel quale lui non è specializzato. Facendo attenzione a questo piccolo dettaglio si ha una nuova chiave di lettura per la sua intervista. Il geologo Tozzi dice chiaramente che:

“Non è tanto che le trivellazioni facciano danni, provochino terremoti, questo no. Sono sciocchezze senza senso. Oppure che sfregino il paesaggio. Questo è vero in alcuni casi ma non in tutti. […]”

Lei è geologo, ha mai partecipato ad attività estrattive?

“Sì, certo, come geologo ho partecipato diverse volte a prospezioni petrolifere, non sono particolarmente dannose in sé, il loro impatto ambientale è contenuto nella maggior parte dei casi e gli incidenti sono molto rari. Ma, ripeto, il problema non è questo. E’ un problema di prospettiva. […]”

Allora Tozzi ci conferma che i rischi ambientali legati alle attivitá di estrazione di idrocarburi sono limitati. Paventare scenari catastrofici simili all’incidente del Deepwater Horizon nel Golfo del Messico accaduto qualche anno fa è fuorviante e sbagliato, perchè non solo le technologie sono diverse (es: profondità di estrazione) ma anche perchè i rischi nell’estrazione di petrolio sono diversi dai rischi legati all’estrazione di gas. (Ulteriore approfondimento: qui) I sostenitori del Sì spaventano la gente facendo leva sulla memoria legata alle immagini di animali completamente ricoperti di greggio e di coste sfregiate dalla marea nera. Poi però, scopriamo che il referendum riguarda per la maggior parte piattaforme per l’estrazione di gas metano, non di petrolio! Controllate pure sulla lista del ministero oppure, se preferite, su quella in fondo a questo dossier di Legambiente.

L’economista Tozzi invece sostiene che:

“Il problema vero è che se tu continui a cercare nuovi idrocarburi, e poi li dovrai raffinare e bruciare, non ti allineerai mai agli obiettivi che invece, anche come governo nazionale, sostieni di voler perseguire.”

Cosa dovrebbero chiedere i cittadini in materia energetica?

“L’abbandono progressivo delle fonti fossili. Se noi abbiamo aderito all’accordo sul clima di Parigi, vuol dire che entro il 2050 dovremo tagliare le nostre emissioni inquinanti. E quando lo facciamo? Nel 2049? Devi cominciare adesso, non c’è tempo da perdere, a investire sulle energie rinnovabili e su quelle incentrare tutta la trategia energetica del Paese.”

A quanto pare diversi personaggi famosi invitano a votare “Sì” per lanciare un messaggio al governo affinchè adotti una politica ambientale più aggressiva di quella attuale, in primis per rispettare l’accordo di Parigi firmato il dicembre scorso. Lo scrive il conduttore e divulgatore scientifico Luca Mercalli (qui) e Giovanna Ricoveri sul Fatto Quotidiano (in un articolo alquanto superficiale). Personaggi come Alessandro Gassman invece pubblicano su Twitter grafici che illustrano alte concentrazioni di Pm2.5 in Italia, omettendo il fatto che l’uso di gas naturale possa aiutare a ridurre il micro particolato (che pazienza bisogna avere, davvero: perchè ad esempio la provincia di Bolzano scrive qui che gli autobus a metano emettono una quantità quasi nulla di particolati?).

Gettare il bambino con l’acqua sporca

Visto che chi scrive è un economista ambientale e non un geologo, mi fido di Tozzi per quanto riguarda i rischi ambientali ma ritengo la sua analisi di politica ambientale alquanto grossolana. Mi soffermo su due questioni fondamentali.

Punto 1. Dai veti dei referendum non possono nascere politiche serie.

Purtroppo i referendum sono solo abrogativi. Le politiche serie sono invece programmi complessi che fanno affidamento su diversi strumenti e sotto-obiettivi per raggiungere obiettivi ambiziosi, come è ad esempio il forte abbattimento delle emissioni di gas serra per evitare i peggiori scenari di cambiamento climatico. Sarà pur vero che i referendum abrogativi sono uno dei pochi modi che i cittadini hanno per far sentire la loro voce su tematiche specifiche, ma è altrettanto vero che è una modalità mediocre e maldestra di favorire il buon governo.

Punto 2. Non distinguere il gas naturale dal petrolio è sbagliato.

Mi voglio soffermare su questo punto. Il referendum abrogativo rischia di far danni per la politica climatica in Italia. La produzione di energia elettrica con gas naturale emette in media il 40 % di gas serra in meno rispetto all’uso di carbone e il 25% in meno rispetto all’uso di petrolio ed ha emissioni minime di zolfo ed altri inquinanti (entrambi le fonti sono in inglese).

Non esiste piano di politica climatica che non preveda un mix di fonti energetiche per raggiungere gli obiettivi di taglio delle emissioni di gas serra. Detto diversamente, non esistono piani credibili di politica climatica che puntino tutto su energia solare ed eolica. Il gas naturale, ad esempio, è sempre presente anche nei piani più ambiziosi di taglio alle emissioni. Mi riferisco ad esempio al quinto rapporto dell’Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change, un organismo delle Nazioni Unite che riunisce i maggiori esperti internazionali sul cambiamento climatico e sulle politiche ambientali. Anche Greenpeace ne parla bene (link) ma dubito che l’abbiano letto attentamente.

Il rapporto, risultato di anni di lavoro, sintetizza la frontiera della conoscenza scientifica sull’argomento e delinea le politiche di mitigazione necessarie per evitare il surriscaldamento del pianeta. Nonostante venga posta l’enfasi sull’investimento in fonti di energia pulita, i combustibili fossili rimangono sempre parte del mix energetico, anche nei casi di politiche ambientali aggressive. Sia il carbone che il gas naturale sono combustibili fossili, ma il IPCC spiega che:

“Le emissioni di gas serra possono essere ridotte in modo significativo sostituendo le attuali centrali a carbone in tutto il mondo con moderne, altamente efficienti, centrali a gas naturale a ciclo combinato o impianti di co-generazione […] (solida evidenza empirica, forte consenso scientifico)”

(Originale) “GHG emissions from energy supply can be reduced significantly by replacing current world average coal-fired power plants with modern, highly efficient natural gas combined-cycle power plants or combined heat and power plants, provided that natural gas is available and the fugitive emissions associated with extraction and supply are low or mitigated (robust evidence, high agreement)”

(dal Summary for Policymakers, p. 21)

Il rapporto dell’IPCC specifica per ogni affermazione non solo il livello di consenso degli scienziati sul tema, ma anche la solidità dell’evidenza empirica che supporta quella tesi. C’è ampio consenso tra gli scienziati (che include gli economisti) sul fatto che il gas naturale possa contribuire nella transizione verso un’economia sostenibile. Per uno studio più specifico sull’Italia, rimando ad un recente studio dell’ENEA, l’Agenzia Nazionale per le nuove technologie, l’energia e lo sviluppo sostenibile, dal quale ho preso il grafico qui sotto .

pic_ENEA_1
Precisione al 2015 del mix energetico con politica climatica (ENEA, Verso un’Italia Low Carbon: Sistema Energetico, Occupazione e Investimenti, 2013)

 

Non facciamone una questione di principio

Votare “Si” vuol dire chiedere al governo di interrompere nel tempo la produzione italiana di idrocarburi, limitatamente all’estrazione in aree marine. Ciò vuol dire che le politiche ambientali, soprattutto quelle riguardanti la riduzione delle emissioni di gas serra, aumenteranno la nostra dipendenza dai produttori esteri di gas naturale. Come ho cercato di spiegare, il referendum non distingue il petrolio dal gas naturale e noi avremo molto bisogno del gas. L’ipocrisia si palesa nell’idea di voler proteggere le nostre belle spiagge ma fregarsene dei rischi ambientali scaricati su paesi dai quali importiamo idrocarburi – spesso non democratici. Ecco da dove importiamo gas e petrolio. Le nostre spiagge son belle, ma quelle russe e quelle algerine? Importiamo gas soprattutto dalla Russia, vi immaginate cosa ne farebbe Putin dei referendari StopTrivelle? Gli italiani fanno gli ambientalisti a spese degli altri.

Come spesso accade, le questioni di principio si trasformano in malgoverno e ne paghiamo tutti le conseguenze. Concludo l’articolo con una sfida: fornitemi uno studio accurato che preveda al 2050 l’uso esclusivo di energie rinnovabili per tutti gli usi energetici, cioè non solo per la produzione di elettricità ma anche per il riscaldamento e per alimentare i mezzi di trasporto. Nel caso la prospettiva di usare esclusivamente le rinnovabili non sia credibile, vuol dire che avremo bisogno di qualcos’altro e questo qualcos’altro si chiama gas naturale. Tirate le vostre conclusioni e votate come vi pare.

P.S.: in un altro articolo mi occupo degli effetti occupazionali del referendum (qui)

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The ECB’s Dilemma and Our Savings

The European Central Bank surprised (almost) everyone by fully entering into the unknown world of negative interest rates. I am not going to discuss the details of the ECB’s decision, for that I refer to a table at the end of this article. I want to address a key issue here: Why is the ECB so willing to destroy our saving plans?

ecb-march-16-b

For an average individual with positive savings, the law of compound interest is history. Liquid assests are not able to provide decent returns, not even in nominal terms (don’t forget we are experiencing deflation in some Euro countries). Risk appetite is a natural consequence of the zero interest rate environment and it will get worse as baseline rates turn negative.

Deflation is a symptom of a more general economic malaise and, like high fever, it must be averted. High fever may cause brain damage. Similarly, debtors suffer from deflation because debt is indexed in nominal terms and their income shrinks with lower prices. If you avoid reading this fact with moralistic attitude but rather through economic thinking, there are many reasons to take bold action against deflation.

So, why should creditors and savers suffer? Actually, net savers must suffer, because aggregate savings are too high. Germans complain that Draghi is playing with their savings. On Friday Handelsblatt, the main German financial newspaper, titled: “Mario Draghi Dangerous Game with German Saver’s Money“. Germany’s record trade surplus goes hand in hand with an excess of savings, that contributes to depress demand in the whole Eurozone. Excessive savings is a global problem (search for “savings glut“), but in Europe it is particularly acute.

hdsl
“Mario Draghi’s dangerous game with Money of German savers” Handelsblatt titles.

In the current economic circumstances we, net savers, are part of the problem, not of the solution.

Besides the problem of lack of demand, let’s not forget that the ECB is in the middle of a currency war and it is top priority for the central bank to keep the Euro low compared to other currencies. Given that China and Japan are undertaking very aggressive monetary policies and the US has the power to do more, for the ECB not following this expansionary trend would risk an appreciation of the Euro and a consequent damage to exporters and to the fragile recovery.

The measures taken by the ECB will have little real effect. Yet, I dont think Draghi had no room of manoeuvre to do otherwise.

ecb-march-16
ECB’s plan released on March 10. Source: Frederik Ducrozet (Twitter).

New Proposed Law in German Bundestag to Damage Economic Research.

If you are an economist, think that the German Statistical Agency holds several micro-census datasets, in particular the Official Firm Data for Germany (AFiD). The AFiD is a panel dataset that includes administrative data on a broad range of business-related information combined with detailed environmental statistics at the firm level. Currently it covers the period 1995-2014. Imagine that the German legislator would pass a law that limits the length of retention of such business data to only few years. That would destroy a piece of scientific treasure!

If you are not an economist, just think that official firm-level datasets are the most reliable data sources to carry out economic research on the determinants of productivity growth, employment, innovation and many other factors related to the economy of a country. There are researchers and doctoral students out there that have spent years of their life working on these datasets and are hoping to turn their sacrifice into well published scientific articles. Just realize that a new bill discussed in the German Parliament will turn their impressive effort into a useless endeavour, if nothing is done.

The Bundestag, the German Parliament, is discussing in these days an amendment to the Bundesstatistikgesetzes (Statistics Act) that for privacy concerns will require company identification numbers to be deleted after ten years.

The datasets affected by the bill are mostly about firms, not households, and they are already hardly accessible to safeguard privacy. You can find some examples of these datasets here. They contain general information on the balance sheet and income statement of firms, as well as data on their use of labour and energy. Privacy is already well protected. Researchers never have access to real firm identifiers but only to non-systematic firm numbers. Researchers cannot get information on a single firm – not even a small group of firms – but only run analysis on large samples, but it is very important that the firm numbers stay the same and are not deleted! Currently, such data cannot be copied and the only possible way to access them is to go to the Statistical Agency and work on a PC disconnected from the rest of the world. Apparently this good balance between privacy (of firms!) and open access for scientific discovery is not enough for a group of companies that have triggered this initiative in the Bundestag.

The Science Minister of Baden Württemberg, Theresia Bauer, has recently spoke out and warned of the great damage this measure will do to economic research, not only in Germany  (read here, in German). The Verein für Socialpolitik (German Economics Association) has prepared an open letter to protest against this bill (in German). If the bill passes, not only many interesting economic questions cannot be investigated with a time frame of barely a decade – for procedural reasons it will be, de facto, up to 6 years – but it also means that the results of a paper will not be replicable after some years because the identifiers are deleted.

As an economist, I am touched by this silent drama even if I have not worked with such datasets so far. I know how important they are for advancing our knowledge on several important economic topics and I am honestly horrified by knowing that such bill will be passed by the German parliament. Nobody is aware of this problem, probably not even the members of the Bundestag that are discussing the amendment. The media coverage has been completely absent and policymakers are going to decide soon. Social media can help to raise awareness on that, so my call is to you to spread the news through your contacts!

The Eurozone and The Deception of Structural Reforms

Some Eurozone countries are playing a foolish game. Structural reforms are oversold with moralistic arguments to avoid accepting the obvious: some kind of transfer system is necessary and urgent.

We all agree that the European Monetary Union (EMU) needs a different institutional framework with better governance. We also all agree that EMU economies will never completely converge and, actually, the process of readjustment to “fundamentals” occurring in Italy, Greece and other Southern countries is very painful and politically disruptive. The mantra of structural reforms is a desperate attempt from Germany and other Nordic countries to avoid accepting the truth: the EMU will never work without some kind of cross-country transfer system to mitigate unbalances in the short-medium term.

tweet_ESM
A recent attempt to oversell the benefits of structural reforms

What are structural reforms for?

Structural reforms cover a broad range of policy areas. In countries like Italy, the average number of days required to enforce a contract is three times higher than in Germany. Southern European countries in general have low appeal for innovators and public funding to research and innovation lags behind Germany and France (see here and here). Greece scores quite badly in the Ease of doing business indicator compared to other EMU peers. Structural reforms have indeed the potential to increase the long-run GDP levels of the “weak” Eurozone countries. Yet, this does not mean structural reform will restore balance in the monetary union, nor make it sustainable.

As Dani Rodrik from Harvard University wrote in The Mirage of Structural Reforms:

Any serious assessment of the actual results produced by structural reforms around the world – particularly in Latin America and Eastern Europe since 1990 – would have poured cold water on such expectations [on structural reforms in Greece]. Privatization, deregulation, and liberalization typically produce growth in the longer term at best, with short-run effects that are often negative.

This is a no-brainer. Increasing productivity is not an easy task and it often involves painful surgery – that is short-term losses for monopolists and for other firms with low productivity, as well as defaults to clean up the economy from zombie firms. As it is for surgeries, it takes time to heal and complete cure is not guaranteed.

“The Juncker plan, alone, is not enough,” Merkel said […], calling for structural reforms and austerity to accompany the Commission President’s growth initiative. (from Euroactiv.com)

You might confuse structural reforms with measures that rebalance labour costs through cuts in real wages and prices but you should not. Structural reforms, as correctly interpreted by Rodrik, aim at achieving convergence in living standards between Germany and Greece. We might order Greece to cut public sector wages to realign costs with productivity but this has very little to do with long-term growth. This is about asking Greece to rebalance their public and private expenses with the fundamentals, that is to move to an equilibrium where labour and capital are paid according to their productivity. This can be done quickly – in a monetary union is done with real devaluation – but this just ensures that Greeks live with what they can afford now. Such adjustment do not necessarily lead to higher long-term productivity.

The political game

Germany leads the group of EMU countries opposing any kind of transfer system within the monetary union. The President of the Deutsche Bundesbank, Jens Weidmann, recently stated that:

[…] But the big risk is that payments intended to cushion country-specific shocks become permanent one-way transfers. 
Some have even come out and explicitly called for a revenue-sharing arrangement. France’s economy minister Emmanuel Macron, for example, said in an interview with the Süddeutsche Zeitung: “Monetary union without a revenue-sharing scheme – that’s impossible! The strong have to help.” 

Macron concedes that advocating permanent fiscal transfers is breaking a taboo for Germany, but in turn, raises the prospect of reforms in France, arguing that we all have to change our ways. In other words, France wishes to remain the sole decision-maker in questions of structural reform, but is indicating good intentions.
Ladies and gentlemen 
If I may return to the image of a crooked frame: regular transfer payments, without setting up a genuine fiscal union, would be like skewing the angle of a crooked picture even more.

The German establishment claims that all other EMU countries should copy Germany’s model and the Eurozone crisis will be solved. All the emphasis on structural reforms comes from Germany. I borrow a sentence from Lawrence Summers‘s paper on secular stagnation, that perfectly fits in this case:

to the extent that the focus of structural reform is on increased competitiveness, it is likely to be a zero-sum game.

Germany’s fortune in the last decade came from exports (any doubt on that, check this out). The Eurozone is the major export market for German firms. If everyone exports more – which is anyway unlikely – Germany will suffer heavy losses. International trade is ultimately a zero-sum game. Summers continues, while discussing measures that will possibly overcome sluggish productivity growth in developed countries:

That is not to say that structural reform is a bad thing or should not be substantially encouraged. But the idea that structural reform will help area-wide secular stagnation can be supported by neither theory nor evidence.

The rhetoric used to oversell the benefits of structural reforms has the problem of being too extreme. Germany and its allies are pretending that the only possible solution of the current EMU instability comes from firm rules and economic policy measures that have uncertain and, in the best case, long-run positive effects. Nice to have clean and respected rules to guide expectations and improve credibility. At the moment, rules only manage to anchor investors expectations that we are heading towards a disaster and convince observers that the EMU is consistently designed to implode sooner or later. The dominant view in the Eurogroup is that order and coherence are important values per se.

Restore intellectual honesty

My message is simple. Structural reforms are not substitutes for a Euro area mechanism that mitigates unbalances in unemployment and asymmetric downturns in GDP across countries. Yes, it is some kind of transfer system but it should not necessarily involve the transfer of money from a government to another. Such system is crucial to avoid political upheavals in suffering countries. What about a Euro area unemployment benefit scheme that goes from a central EMU authority to the individual unemployment person, regardless of the nationality?

The current approach of the Eurogroup assumes that Eurozone economies will not diverge over time and, if they do, national politicians will bear the political cost of the painful transition periods, because it is their fault if their country does not catch up. Any reasonable observer knows how absurd is this assumption, reality is just very different. As you can see, at the moment the EMU governance is based on moralistic principles and no substance.

The political game of some EMU countries that avoids acknowledging the necessity of some kind of short-term transfer system and oversells structural reforms with moralistic arguments is extremely dangerous. There is a high risk that political upheaval in Southern countries will break the Euro apart, if we only rely on the effects of structural reforms.

Italian Researchers May Not Need More Funding, Just More Colleagues

Comparing Italy and the United Kingdom is instructive to spot the most severe problems of Italy’s Research and Innovation system. Despite Italy’s disheartening scoring in innovation indicators (two examples here and here), on average Italian researchers seem not to lack funding. Fixing Italy’s innovation performance requires much more than rising government spending.

The United Kingdom is a top destination for the many frustrated and hopeless young Italian researchers that decide to continue their career outside their home country. The UK is one of the most dynamic and innovative economies in the world and British universities are well represented in the rankings of world’s top 50 research institutions.

Is Research and Innovation (R&I) so much better funded in the UK than in Italy? The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) publishes a comprehensive set of indicators to evaluate the state of the R&I system in most industrialized countries. Let’s have a look into the Main Science and Technology Indicators to see what really differs between Italy’s and the United Kingdom’s R&I. Tables 1-3 below report extracts for some selected indicators in 2013 and I add two column to include as well Germany and Spain. Germany is not only one of the global scientific powers, it also shares similar traits with the Italian manufacturing-centred economic structure. Spain is a Mediterrenean country that distinguished itself for R&D excellence despite not having the economic strenght of other European partners.

Year 2013 Italy United Kingdom Germany Spain
Gross Domestic Expenditure on R&D,
GERD (current PPP $, millions)
28128.12 41743.39 106780.75 19318.44
GERD as a percentage of GDP
(%)
1.31 1.66 2.84 1.26
Total GBAORD
(current PPP $, millions)
11319.69 14435.86 32640.11 8436.25
GERD per capita population
(current PPP $, millions)
463.81 651.16 1271.89 414.62

Table 1. R&I funding indicators, year 2013 (Source: OECD).
GERD: Gross Domestic Expenditure on R&D (definition). GBAORD: Government budget appropriations or outlays for research and development (definition).

It appears quite stricking that yes, the UK invests more in R&I than Italy does, but the difference is quite small. In terms of spending per unit of Gross Domestic Product (GDP), Italy invests only 0.35 percentage points less than the UK, but less than half than Germany. Total government expenses in research can be measured by Government budget appropriations or outlays for research and development (GBAORD). As Table 1 shows, in Italy GBAORD are very similar to the level of public expenses in the UK (note: GBAORD are planned, not actual). Are Italian researchers just too many to share the pie?

Government Budget for R&I per Researcher
Figure 1. Government budget appropriations or outlays for R&D per full time equivalent researcher (own calculation, OECD-MSTI data)

The answer seems to be No. According to official aggregate statistics, Italian researchers are not underfunded. The paradox arises from looking at the amount of funding per unit (full time equivalent researcher), which is much higher in Italy than in the UK (Figure 1 and Table 2). The amount of funding that both the private and public sectors invest in research and innovation and that is available on average per one researcher is quite high in Italy, even higher than in Germany in 2013.

Yet, the situation appears not so bright for Italy once we take into account of all R&D personnel, that includes technical support as well as administrative staff (definition here). Data suggest that the Italian R&I system is highly bureocratic. Researchers in Italy are only 47% of R&D personnel (Table 3), whereas in the UK the share of scientists on all people involved was 70% in 2013. The percentage is also low compared to Germany (61%) and Spain (61%).

Year 2013 Italy United Kingdom Germany Spain
GERD per researcher
(thousand $/FTE)
242 156 289 157
GERD per R&D personnel
(thousand $/FTE)
114 111 175 95
GBAORD per researcher
(thousand $/FTE)
97.5 54 90.2 68.5
GBAORD per R&D personnel
(thousand $/FTE)
45.9 38.3 54.3 41.5

Table 2. Other selected indicators of R&I strenght (Own calculation from OECD data). FTE: Full Time Equivalent.

By looking at a wider set of statistics (Table 3), we might get a better idea of which is the most serious problem of the Italian R&D system. Researchers in Italy need more colleagues than more funding. The total number of researchers in Italy is only 4.78% of all people employed in the economy, that is nearly half of in the UK and in Germany, and still much lower than in Spain. Is this the result of austerity and spending cuts? Well, no.

Year 2013 Italy United Kingdom Germany Spain
Total Researchers
(Full Time Equivalent)
116163.3 267698.5 359640 123224.69
Total R&D personnel
(Full Time Equivalent)
246764 377342.9 588615.03 203302.03
Total researchers
per thousand total
employment
4.78 8.91 8.37 6.92
Business Enterprise researchers
as a percentage of national total
37.12 36.78 56.85 36.29

Table 3. Employment in the R&I sector (OECD, MSTI data)

Figure 2 clearly indicates that the number of researchers in Italy has grown by 80% over the period 2000-2013. The statistic sums up all researchers in the public and private sector and it shows no sign of slowdown during the last recession after 2008. Despite this trend, the Italian R&I sector remains understaffed and the reason for this is absolutely not clear.

Why are hordes of young Italian researchers fleeing from a system that still provides a good level of funding compared to the UK, one of the countries where they are heading to?

total-researchers-growth
Figure 2. Growth in number of total researchers (FTE), index 2000 = 1. (OECD-MSTI data)

The MSTI has more disaggregated information, but I avoid to break data into different sectors (High Education, Business, Government, Non-profit). Comparing countries with statistics is always a slippery ground because differences may be due to accounting methods rather than reality. The OECD dataset is highly harmonized but, for instance, it does not allow to make precise statements in diversity with respect to resources allocated to the High Education and Government sectors because, as the documentation explains, government-sponsored National Research Centres are not included in the same sector in all countries. That is why I keep using aggregates. Italy seems to have a much lower funding directed to Universities compared to the UK, but this might be just due to a different statistical classification.

What we get from this pieces of evidence is the paradox of a country that experiences a massive brain drain in the research sector (there is an in-depth analysis on the topic in the latest European Commission’s Country Report, page 41) but does not perform badly in terms of funding per researcher. The data shown here do not explain much, but they give an important hint: in Italy investing more money in R&I is not a sufficient condition for improving the country’s innovation performance.

My take is that money does not attract researchers because of the unappealing institutional framework (that includes the business environment). Research activities in Italy are like oasis in the desert.  The country must invest on a lot of complementary factors, as human capital and scientific culture,  as well as finally making the university system more meritocratic, before thinking about spending more money on research. Data on Venture Capital funding in Italy is horrific. If you have a look at chapters 4-7 of the pocketbook “Science, Technology and Innovation in Europe“, you can get a better idea of what I am talking about. In Italy more than in all other industrialized countries, investing in teachers and training is the prerequisite for investing in more researchers.

Note: OECD data for Italy are provided by ISTAT and the original dataset can be found here. By contacting ISTAT, the institute confirmed that “Assegnisti di Ricerca” are included in the calculation of Total Researchers.

Economic Melancholy

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) just revised worldwide growth projections for 2016 and 2017 downwards to 3% and 3.3%. Global growth is called “elusive” and the OECD advocates for prompt policy intervention. Not from central banks, but from governments. According to the Interim Economic Outlook, current fiscal policies are contractionary in all mayor OECD countries and the economic think-tank recommends to undertake government-led large-scale investment plans to relaunch demand and, surprise!, to reduce the debt burden. Apparently the investment multiplier is so large that the increase in the level of public debt would be eclipsed by GDP growth, that reduces the famous debt to GDP ratio. The OECD criticises the Juncker’s investment plan as to have an insufficient scale and to be implemented too slowly.

Even if their predictions on benefits from higher public investment seems to me an upper bound on hopes, the OECD indicates the right direction. I am not convinced by the anecdotal evidence of Robert Gordon on the case for a technological crisis, which would make such investment plans ineffective. I am more on the side of those that see a chronic laggard demand, not able to catch up with faster technological progress. Don’t be fooled by TFP and other wannabe productivity growth measures: they track both demand and supply factors, even if many commentators pass off them as evidence for dismal technological progress. Gordon’s book is coming out soon, I will talk about this influential thesis again.