Science - 06.12.2019

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1178 6 DECEMBER 2019 • VOL 366 ISSUE 6470 SCIENCE



Levente Diosady and colleagues at the Uni-
versity of Toronto in Canada. The same spray-
ing equipment used for iodization of salt,
already mandated in Ethiopia to prevent in-
tellectual disabilities and thyroid disease, can
deliver folic acid. “One of the main reasons
this project is moving forward and there is
a lot of political support for it is it requires
few adaptations,” says Christine McDonald, a
micronutrient scientist at Children’s Hospital
Oakland Research Institute in California.
McDonald was part of the team that vis-
ited Addis Ababa last month. There, the team
met with potential funders and with Hakan
Kolenogˇlu, chief executive of the country’s
leading salt processor, SVS Salt Production
PLC, who promised to fortify, free of charge,
40 tons of salt for preliminary studies.
With initial funding from ReachAnother
(more will be needed, the team says), re-
searchers will test whether folate-fortified
salt is stable in Ethiopian environmental
conditions and whether its sensory qualities,
including a yellowish tinge, are acceptable to
Ethiopians. If the answers are encouraging,
fortified salt’s effects on the gold standard
measurement of folate sufficiency—red blood
cell folate levels—will be put to the test in a
randomized, controlled, double-blind trial of
hundreds of women of reproductive age.
“There is no scientific evidence that add-
ing [folic acid] to salt could improve the
folate status of women,” says Masresha
Tessema, a nutritionist at EPHI’s Food Sci-
ence and Nutrition Research Directorate
who was first author on the issue brief and
is the Ethiopian lead on the planned stud-
ies. “The ministry needs evidence.”
If salt supplementation works, it could be
game changing for Ethiopia: A meta-analysis
this year concluded that large-scale folic acid
food fortification in low- and middle-income
countries has lowered the risk of NTDs by
41%. “We have an amazing opportunity to do
a lot of good,” says Kenneth Brown, the lead
U.S. scientist on the team that met in Addis
Ababa. Brown, an emeritus professor at the
University of California, Davis, who was un-
til recently a senior nutrition scientist at the
Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, adds: “It’s
shovel ready. We know what the problem is.
We know how to fix it.”
Other experts hope an Ethiopian suc-
cess story could spur efforts in more than
110 other countries that don’t mandate
food fortification. Says Nicholas Wald, an
epidemiologist at University College London,
who in a seminal 1991 paper established that
taking 4 milligrams of folic acid daily, before
and in early pregnancy, reduces the risk of
NTDs by about 80%: “It’s a global issue of
which Ethiopia is an extreme example. Loads
of countries should be fortifying a staple food
with folic acid and aren’t.” j


cientists in Italy are about to receive a
long-sought gift—but some are disap-
pointed. This month, Italy is expected
to set up its first national science fund-
ing agency, with an annual budget
that would rise to €300 million. Ital-
ian scientists are welcoming the boost to a
thin basic research budget and the prospect
of an independent body that could allocate
the money transparently. But some complain
that the sum is too small and worry that the
new National Research Agency (ANR) will be
vulnerable to political interference.
Originally announced in September by
Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who leads
a coalition government of the populist Five
Star Movement and the center-left Demo-
cratic Party, the ANR proposal is now a part
of the country’s 2020 budget bill, which the
Parliament must approve by 31 December.
The Senate is set to vote on the bill this
week, after which it will move to the lower
house. The agency could be up and running
in a matter of months—with many ques-
tions hanging over it.
“There is the willingness to set up a na-
tional science funding agency, but there is
not much clarity on how it should be done,”
says Maria Cristina Messa, a clinical diagnos-
tics researcher at the University of Milan-

Bicocca. Messa adds that €300 million might
be adequate to fund basic research projects.
“But for applied research, it’s definitely not
enough,” she says.
With R&D spending of about 1.3% of its
gross domestic product, Italy lags behind the
2.4% average of other developed countries.
Nearly one-third of the spending, which to-
taled €23.8 billion in 2017, according to the
Italian National Institute of Statistics, came
from public sources such as the Ministry of
Health, the Ministry of the Environment,
and the Ministry of Education, University,
and Research (MIUR). But ministry funding
can be erratic and lacks long-term planning,
says Piergiuseppe De Berardinis, an immuno-
logist at the Italian National Research Coun-
cil in Naples. For example, MIUR’s last grant
call for basic research was in 2017, and grant
winners began to receive the money only this
year. What’s more, grant review is often a
black box, De Berardinis says. Italian public
agencies approve or reject applications “with
just a few lines of boilerplate text, which
leaves no room for appeal,” he says.
ANR won’t solve these problems, as it will
be an add-on to the current system rather
than a replacement, says Nicola Bellomo, a
mathematician at the Polytechnic Univer-
sity of Turin and president of Gruppo 2003,
a group that has called for a national fund-
ing agency. But it could make some annual

Italy set to create €300 million

research funding agency

Researchers applaud plan but worry about agency’s small

budget and potential political interference


By Giorgia Guglielmi

A new Italian funding agency would be supervised by the Ministry of Education, University, and Research in Rome.

Published by AAAS

on December 12, 2019^

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