Virologist Ilaria Capua has just left Italy after being acquitted from the charge of illegal virus trafficking. Why do Italian people distrust Italian scientists?

Today I’m going to tell you a sad story. It’s sad even though it has an happy ending. On July 5th one of the top Italian scientists, virologist Ilaria Capua, has been acquitted after a judicial investigation longer than a decade.

(First, three books about science, politics and justice).

Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science

Contro la modernità.Le radici della cultura antiscientifica in Italia.

Science Left Behind: Feel-Good Fallacies and the Rise of the Anti-Scientific Left

This is the good news. What should make Italians sad is just before the end of this interminable story, Dr. Capua decided to left Italy. She resigned as president of the veterinary institute she led and from the Italian parliament to accept the role of director at the One Health Centre of Excellence for Research and Training in Florida.

Italian scientists

Ilaria Capua

What was the investigation about? The story began in 2005, after a U.S. inquiry. An Italian manager of a pharma company was suspected to have illegally shipped a virus strand to Italy. Italian investigators mainly used tap recordings of telephone calls.

Nobody knew it until 2014. Some information leaked to the magazine l’Espresso, which titled its issue “virus traffickers”. Ilaria Capua was accused of illegal trafficking of virus and even attempted epidemic.

The whole story is summarized in an article (here the English version) by the journalist Paolo Mieli, on national newspaper Corriere della Sera. One of the few artcles on this topic in Italy written before the sentence.

I’m not saying the investigation was not necessary. It was. But It had to be done in, say, two years, not ten. The information leaked to the press in these years damaged both Capua’s scientific and political activity. Probably also her personal life, considering the disappointment coming out from the interviews released before leaving Italy.

There are some ridiculous things in this story, like the secret society 444 allegedly created by Capua to hide her earnings, which was nothing else than the centre of cost of her laboratory. Everything sounded weird if you knew the reason why Dr. Capua was awarded as “revolutionary mind” by Seed magazine and was in the top 50 world scientists in 2007.

During the bird flu crisis in 2006 she sequenced the DNA of H5N1 bird flu strain. Normally these information were placed in a protected database of WHO, opened only to a restricted group of scientists. Capua disclosed her results on a public database and challenged her colleagues to do the same, in order to boost the research in an emergency time. This brought to a worldwide discussion about open access to scientific data.

Did someone of the investigators wander how someone who had not even patented her discoveries became a deceitful businesswomen? Why she was…breaking bad?

Lately we have had at least a couple of cases of Italian scientists involved in judicial trials. First example. After the 2009 earthquake in l’Aquila, six seismologists were initially found guilty (but later cleared) of having minimized the risk in their communications to the citizens. Everyone knows that earthquakes are unpredictable. One article of the Guardian about it is here. Second example. In 2015 some Italian scientists were working to contain the infection of Xylella Fastidiosa (a bacterium originally from South America) affecting olive trees. They were criticized by local associations and accused to have caused the spreading of infection by importing a strain of the bacteria for a training course. Read about in on Nature here.

The title of the Corriere della Sera piece about Dr. Capua is “Italy’s contempt for Scientific Research”.

Interesting. Is that true?

Italian scientists

Is it true that the nation giving birth the Galileo Galilei, the one who invented the modern scientific method, hates science? (Oh, I forgot that Galilei was obliged to retreat his theories by Inquisition).

Anyway this example can be misleading. I’m not sure that having Vatican inside our borders is not the (only) reason of this contradiction nowadays.

In some people’s imagination, a scientist is someone obscurely able to manipulate nature. A kind of power that might potentially be dangerous. I have a personal example on that. I’m a chemist and used to work in pharma, long time ago. That’s probably why I’m a bit sensitive about this topic. Talking about my job, very few people asked question like “which illness are you trying to address?” or “how do you do your everyday job?” Most questions I had was like: “do you kill guinea pigs?” or “can you build a bomb?”

And of course: “can you synthesis drugs?” I have to say breaking Bad enlightened me on the expections that people have on chemists. Sometimes I have felt a higher social acceptance since I changed job.  I guess my current job is something that people understands.

For many people science is something potentially sinister and suspicious. And scientists are people who can indeed become Walter White of Breaking Bad.

Italian scientists

I’m not sure where this feeling comes from. I tried to find some explanations.

Italians tend not to care about something if they don’t see an immediate advantage.

And of course it’s difficult to understand the advantage coming from basic research. If you speak about research in Italy people thinks mainly about cancer treating. Cancer is the main fear people has worldwide, I think. Speak about every other scientific activity and someone will raise a hand (or write a post on Facebook) and say: it’s waste of money.

Now I’m adding two serious points (hey, don’t skip).

For decades the Italian school was based on an elite system. People who studied classics and humanities had a privileged access to the ruling class.

Children of working class was destined to professional schools. Scientific schools lied somewhere in the middle. Italian culture was generally influenced by the a philosophy, the Italian Neoidealism, which considered science subordinate to humanities. Therefore engineers, chemists, geologists, biologists were considered mainly good technicians, but not people who could develop social and cultural life of the country.

Italy is one of the EU countries spending less money in research and development. In 2012 it was 1,3% of GDP, quite far form the first like Sweden spending more than 3%.

It’s not only because of economic crisis, it has always been like that. Why? There are many reasons. Fact is that Italian industry has always been based on small size family-owned companies. Now things are changing because of the increasing need of technology and the globalisation, but for decades these small industries were really like big families. Workers were hired in their teenage years and worked in the same place until their retirement. These workers where people trusted by the owners and developed their skills year by year. I think that in general experience was valued more than education.

There’s another point I’m thinking about. The self-justification of mediocrity.

It’s not a mystery that corruption is big problem in Italy. Meaning, it was (is?) easier to have success not because of your skills and your talent, but because you were son, son in law, cousin or friend of someone. Or because you were (are?) a cheater. This is reality. Italian scientists suffered this problem especially in Universities. But in my opinion it had another very bad result: the self-justification of mediocre people. When someone gets a position just because his talent or skills, he/she’s always alleged by to be there for another reason. Therefore when someone like Ilaria Capua, who’s clearly there for her skills, gets into this kind of trouble, people is allowed to think: “a-ah! I knew it! I’m just a poor boy,nobody loves me, not because I haven’t studied enough. It’s because I’m a honest guy from a poor family.”

And finally, the double contradiction.

After Dr. Capua announced her decision to leave Italy, you heard a lot of voices raising to complain on top Italian scientists heading to Universities abroad. They probably don’t know that academics are in a worldwide network and they easily change country now and then. Ilaria Capua has already said she hopes to give opportunities to Italian students in Miami. The real problem is researchers not coming to Italy. If you were a top scientist and you knew the episode happened to Ilaria Capua, well, you would probably think twice before accepting a position in Italy.

But things might be changing. Even within a general decreasing trend of enrollments to University, in 2015 for the first time enrollments to science courses slightly exceeded the ones in humanities. It’s a good start to have more Italian scientists active in public life.

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Breaking Bad dvd

Photo of Ilaria Capua: By Nad Micoli (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons.

Olive tree By Yellow.Cat from Roma, Italy (Centenarian olive tree 1  Uploaded by tm) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons