We will have to leave because we don’t have a future here.” Italian researchers fear brain drain following controversial cultivated meat ban

With Italy becoming the only country in the world to have banned cultivated meat, we talk to researchers about what the future holds for them.

Article also available in Italian.

brain drain feared among italian scientists following cultivated meat ban.

With Italy becoming the only country in the world to have banned cultivated meat, we talk to researchers about what the future holds for them.

The controversial new law means anyone selling or marketing cultivated meat could be fined up to €60,000.

Although research isn’t expressly forbidden, the ban is creating a climate of uncertainty among academics and researchers. 

Some fear an exodus of talented young scientists – particularly unwelcome given nearly 10% of Italians already live abroad – while others are concerned the move may cut off future funding opportunities and damage the country’s scientific standing on the global stage.

“We already have a lot of young brains going away from Italy for various reasons,” said Nike Schiavo, a researcher at the University of Trento, who fears the situation will now be far worse for her.

Moving abroad is only option

Nike, who is also a co-founder and board member of Cellular Agriculture Italy – set up to help the country’s fledgling cultivated meat industry develop – now fears she will have no option other than to go abroad if she is to pursue a career in her chosen field.

“Our country has invested money to give us an education,” she said. “But we will have to leave because we don’t have a future here. I would like to set up a cultivated meat startup, but if you’re young, it doesn’t make any sense to start a business in this sector in Italy.

“I don’t want to move into another field of research just because I don’t have the option to continue.”

Nike Schiavo

Luciano Conti, Associate Professor of Applied Biology at the same university, added that although more established researchers like himself would be able to return to their previous fields, this won’t be an option for everyone.

“Young researchers like Nike who want to go on to work in this area just don’t have opportunities in Italy anymore,” he said.

Funding fears

Luciano added that, despite government pledges for research to be free and open, the ban will make it more difficult for cultivated meat scientists to receive funding.

“Officially, the new law should not affect researchers,” he said. “But in this field private funding is the main driver of research, and we are now in big difficulties when it comes to taking this to people to advance research. At the moment, there’s no government funding on this topic in Italy and no private funding.”

Cesare Gargioli, Professor of Applied Biology at the University of Rome, is concerned the ban may create a climate that could prevent scientific breakthroughs in the development of cultivated meat from benefiting adjacent fields of medical research.

Cesare, who moved into cultivated meat from skeletal muscle tissue engineering, says with both areas using similar technology, innovations made in cultivated meat could provide a huge boost to fields such as regenerative medicine.

But with less cultivated meat research taking place, these breakthroughs will become less likely to happen. “This isn’t just about the development of a product that could be commercialised in the future,” he said. “Banning a potential product, and all the work needed to develop this product, feels like it could cause a big problem with our research.”

We’ve lost the battle – not the war

Others were more sanguine about the future of cultivated meat in Italy. 

Alessandro Bertero, Associate Professor at the University of Turin, shares concerns that young people will move to other European countries or choose not to move into the field.

But he believes there are reasons to be optimistic about Italy’s long-term prospects, saying there are still opportunities to put the country’s biomedical expertise to use in early-stage research, even if any production that comes about as a result of Italian breakthroughs would have to be scaled up elsewhere in Europe.  

Assistant Professor Luca Lo Sapio

Alessandro believes the misinformation that dominated the Italian debate demonstrates that cultivated meat scientists need to work more closely together to ensure inaccuracies can be challenged, saying: “I hope we can learn from what’s happened in Italy, and prevent it from happening in other countries.”

Luca Lo Sapio, Assistant Professor of Moral Philosophy and Bioethics at Turin, agreed there was now an even greater need for academics from a wide range of disciplines – including those in the humanities – to work together, making convincing arguments about the importance of cultivated meat and how it can fit into Italy’s food culture.

“We need to double down to change people’s attitudes,” he said. “We can’t say we’ve lost the war – we’ve only lost the battle.”

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