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Change for the rebirth of a nation. Sure thing, but how do we do it?

Reflections from the anthropologist Jared Diamond and the mathematical engineer Vannevar Bush

Giovanni Sabato

Scientific journalist

By April 2021April 8th, 2021No Comments
Photo by Lorenzo De Simone

The advantage of a deep crisis like the pandemic is that it is an opportunity for change and rebirth. That is something we often say about crises, but what does taking on this challenge actually mean for a nation? How does one change to overcome a crisis? This exact topic was the focus of Jared Diamond’s book, which the anthropologist and professor of geography at University of California wrote right before the pandemic. After the bestseller “Guns, Germs and Steel”, about how some civilisations rise and thrive, and “Collapse”, about how some of them fall, Diamond wrote “Upheaval. How nations cope with crises and change” [1], where he discussed how other populations managed to overcome serious crises and thrive thanks to the right strategies.

Selective change

As he points out, “Everyone, at any level, will face a crisis and feel the need to change at some point. (…) Coping with either external or internal pressures requires selective change. That’s as true of nations as of individuals.” In fact Diamond adopted a common key factor, psychology, to interpret the crises of populations that are quite different from one another in terms of time period, continent and culture. The way we face personal issues shows us how we can solve the crises of societies.

Coping with individual crises indeed requires a selective transformation: changing those parts that no longer work without destroying ourselves. Therefore one should identify and differentiate between the foundational and functional aspects of their identity and those that create problems to be able to change the latter. The same approach applies to countries. Thanks to the use of psychology, Diamond identified 12 factors that are crucial to drive change and to resolve personal crises. He then applied these to national crises making a direct and natural comparison or, in most cases, through metaphors.

One of the most stringent and meaningful analogies is to acknowledge that there is a crisis and not to pretend that nothing is happening (in Italy this last part seems to have been acquired because we have gone past the days of people saying, “What crisis? Restaurants are full”). Then you have to accept your own responsibility for the crisis and face it, rather than self-commiserate and play the victim by blaming others (like the Chinese, Europe or Big Pharma). Identify what needs changing and what needs maintaining (without falling for the comfortable nihilist defeatism that exempts you from working for things, scapegoating in order to feel reassured or expecting everything to be changed without that affecting your own privileges). Model the institutions of others and their political solutions, and ask and receive their help (for example European funds). Assess yourself honestly. Remember past crises and treasure those experiences.
Diamond utilised his explanatory scheme to analyse seven case studies of very different countries that overcame crises in the past or that are currently dealing with them. What can this scheme tell us about the current state of things in Italy?

“Coping with either external or internal pressures requires selective change. That’s as true of nations as of individuals”. – Jared Diamond

Italy’s rebirth

One of the strategies discussed above should be emphasised: the need to identify what we should change. Italy certainly needs to reform its civil service, reduce bureaucracy, speed up its judicial processes and promote employment for young men and women as well as a series of other measures and reforms that people often talk about. However, it also desperately needs something that is discussed much less; it needs to change the development model that has been adopted in the past decades and replace it with one based on scientific research and innovation.
Pietro Greco, the late science journalist, focused tirelessly on this argument in much of his writing and dedicated numerous books to it. An example of this is a very long introduction- basically a book of its own- that he wrote for the Italian translation[2] of “A manifest for the rebirth of a nation. Science, the Endless Frontier”, the 1945 report that Vannevar Bush prepared for the then US President, which became available only in 2013 thanks to Bollati Boringhieri.

Vannevar Bush, an engineer and mathematician, was the scientific adviser of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He was also the talented scientific manager and political reference point for the Manhattan Project, which resulted in the creation of the atomic bomb thanks to a formidable coordination of thousands of scientists and other professionals. Roosevelt put Bush in charge of coming up with a plan to organise the post-war scientific system of the USA. The report titled “Science, the Endless Frontier” that Bush wrote, paved the way for modern science politics and the economic development model based on scientific research that the West and other countries, such as Japan and South Korea, have been profiting from for the past decades.

Bush wrote, “Scientific progress is one essential key to our security as a nation, to our better health, to more jobs, to a higher standard of living, and to our cultural progress.” Obviously science is not everything. Many more things are required to enable a country to prosper, from civil service to judicial processes and the care for the environment. However, without science those aspects are not enough: “Science can be effective in the national welfare only as a member of a team, but without scientific progress no amount of achievement in other directions can insure our health, prosperity, and security as a nation in the modern world”.

As Greco points out, the answer presented in that report is still extremely valid for the current times, even for Italy. He broke down Bush’s strategy in 15 points that he believed should be at the core of the Government program to relaunch Italy. The following paragraph is a summary of what he wrote; however, the analysis elucidated in that short volume is worth reading in its entirety because of its rationality and unchanged applicability to the current times.

A country can prosper in economic and cultural terms only through constant scientific and technologic innovation, which creates sustainable wealth and well-paid work in the high-tech sector. The development model that Italy has been adopting until now instead does not include research and creates low or medium-level technologies, which used to be more competitive compared to other industrialised countries because of the low cost of labour and the repeated competitive devaluation of the Italian lira. However, because of globalisation, new countries offering lower cost of labour and the inevitable integration within Europe, these two mechanisms are no longer effective today and our economy has been stagnant, or has grown anaemically in the active periods of global growth, for more than two decades now. The only way out is to change the specialisation of the national production sector and for us to adopt a development model based on technological innovation too. This would revive the economy as well as boost the cultural climate in schools, universities and other cultural centres as it would require and promote the growth of supportive human and cultural capital.

“Science can be effective in the national welfare only as a member of a team”. – Vannevar Bush

Vannevar Bush and Pietro Greco described this process in details. The country should promote research, especially public research, which private companies cannot support and that is indispensible to create medium-long term innovation. It should enhance the human capital that creates innovation by improving education and culture, removing the cultural, bureaucratic and socioeconomic barriers that prevent many from participating to the sector of culture, and promoting merit. It should create a national program of science politics and a national research agency in order to promote teamwork throughout the entire country.

This approach allowed the USA to become a leading country from the post-war period until now. As Pietro Greco observes, this approach is now the formula for the rebirth of our country.

Funding change

A part of the Recovery fund, or rather the NextGenerationEU funding, should be dedicated to this. The appeal highlighting these ideas was published in October, on the Corriere della Sera newspaper, with the signatures of 14 of the most prestigious members of the Italian scientific community, including Giorgio Parisi, the president of the Accademia dei Lincei, and Massimo Inguscio, the president of the National Research Council. They proposed to invest 15 billions over 5 years so that the funding for Italian public research could reach the French levels (in relation to the GDP), adding one billion more each year, thus acquiring a pace that would allow the system to absorb the new resources, going from the current 9 billions per year to 14 billions. The funding should be dedicated to new grants for research projects, the boost of great scientific infrastructures and the enhancement of human capital. Additionally, there would be a strategic plan to manage job competitions for researchers, ensuring that they are focused on merit and held on pre-set and regular dates.

As the researchers put it, this is “the only realistic chance to strengthen Italian research”, thus to take advantage of the crisis as an opportunity for change that can relaunch Italy.

Pietro Greco wrote a letter with a similar tone in his 2013 book, a sort of extreme summary of Bush’s report, but he never sent it in all these years, as there was no political interlocutor that would be interested to receive it. When Mario Draghi was appointed and held his keynote speech at the Senate, he stated that scientific research, including public research, must be adequately funded and that education and university training must be promoted. Might he finally be the right interlocutor?



[1] Diamond J. Crisi. Come rinascono le nazioni (Italian translation of “Upheaval. How nations cope with crises and change”). Turin: Einaudi, 2019.
[2] Bush V. Manifesto per la rinascita di una nazione. (Manifest for the rebirth of a nation.) Scienza, la frontiera infinita (Italian translation of “Science, the Endless Frontier”). Turin: Bollati Boringhieri, 2013.

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