When a problem becomes an opportunity
Before we continue, let's step back in time - to the early 90s, when INCM, the National Interuniversity Consortium for Materials Chemistry, was founded in Florence. INCM was the product of a revolution that was destined to change the way in which research was conducted in the field of materials science and technology – a revolution driven by two closely linked developments then underway. The first was the emergence of advanced customised materials that were subtly altering 'from within' the higher profile applications for which they had been designed. Such applications included microelectronics, photovoltaic cells, biomedical prostheses, coatings for the building industry, aeroplane construction, and even art restoration. These new materials called for a new approach to research, their development requiring interdisciplinary collaboration. This meant that the silo walls that had traditionally kept specialist fields separate from one another had to come down so that physicists, say, could work with biologists, chemists with mathematicians, and engineers with doctors. In order to facilitate this new approach to research – and here we come to the second development mentioned above – the mechanisms by which European research was financed underwent significant change. Funding started to be routed away from the formerly favoured single groups, towards project-specific networks. At the same time, the projects themselves became larger and much more unwieldy.
In the face of these twin challenges, Italy's system proved structurally weak. Its strong points lay in its University-based research capabilities which were, by their very nature, fragmented into small homogeneous groups. Although these were frequently centres of absolute excellence in their specific fields, they were badly positioned to compete in Europe's new boundary-less, interdisciplinary research marketplace. And this is where interuniversity consortia came in. They brought with them a new model that transformed the problem into an opportunity by enabling Italy's universities to unite and coordinate their individual capabilities into a concerted offering with which they could compete for ambitious domestic and international research projects.
Against this backdrop and with the aim of expanding its critical mass in terms of its research capabilities, the INCM decided to open its doors to other disciplines in the mid 90s, looking specifically towards materials science and technologies. Thus after changing its statutes, INCM merged with three other interuniversity consortia: INISM, for Materials Engineering and Science; CISM, for Macromolecule Science; and CIRS, for Chemical Applications of Synchrotron Radiation. And on the 26th November 1996, the larger, newly-formed Consortium officially changed its name to Consorzio Interuniversitario Nazionale per la Scienza e Tecnologia dei Materiali - INSTM
It was a timely move, as by the end of the decade, INSTM was ready to rise to the emerging challenge of nanotechnology. This is a field in which the Consortium has since been particularly active, and one in which it has received important acclaim for its work. Particularly noteworthy are the awards from ANVUR, the National Agency for the Evaluation of Research and Universities. In independent evaluations, ANVUR awarded INSTM first place among Italy's Interuniversity Consorzia in the field of Chemical Sciences, judging 94% of its scientific works as "Excellent", and first place among Italy's Interuniversity Consorzia the field of Industrial and Interuniversity Engineering, judging no less than 83% of its scientific works to be "Excellent".