Italian party’s loss ‘shows limits of science advocacy politics’

Pro-science party failed to make inroads against populist movements

March 10, 2018
Voting booths
Source: iStock

It was billed as a clash over the future of public trust in science: Italy’s recent election pitted rational, evidence-driven moderates against rabid anti-vaxxer populists who wanted to halt inoculation programmes.

The incumbent health minister, Beatrice Lorenzin, who had increased the number of mandatory jabs, even formed her own pro-science party, and called on researchers “who want to represent the scientific truth in parliament” to back her.

But when voters went to the polls on 4 March, Ms Lorenzin’s Civica Popolare party won just 0.5 per cent of the vote.

Italian academics who followed the election see the debacle as a warning over the limits of mobilising science in the service of politics, and paint a more complex picture of “populist” attitudes to science than Ms Lorenzin.

“I don’t believe she got 0.5 per cent because Italians don’t believe in science,” said Guido Silvestri, professor of pathology and immunology at Emory University. Most Italians are supportive of scientists, but do not vote on the basis of science policy, he added.

Researchers “don’t want to be associated with one party”, said Antonio Guarino, a professor of economics at UCL. “I want to have an impact,” he said, but “it would be very bad if the position of science was associated with a particular political party”, reducing scientists to just another interest group.

“Anti-science was one of the critical points of the election campaign, much followed by newspapers [but] of little interest to voters,” said Alberto Baccini, a professor of economics at the University of Siena, and a member of Return on Academic Research, a forum for discussing higher education policy. The vaccine issue was played up to thwart the “predictable” success of new “populist” parties, he said.

One such party is the Five Star Movement, which came out on top with 32 per cent of the vote. Drawing on young voters, it is a hard-to-define grouping that primarily defines itself as anti-establishment.

There is a strain of thought in the movement that believes “we don’t need any competence to do anything” and “my opinion is as worthwhile as yours” said Professor Guarino. Some opposition to the euro has fed off an attitude that “we don’t need economists”, he added.

But as it neared the election, Five Star brought in outside expertise to help with policy, he explained, as did another of the “populist” parties, the League, known for its anti-immigrant tone, which came in third place with about 18 per cent of the vote.

A year ago, Professor Silvestri was asked by Five Star to design its policy on vaccinations, which it adopted “without changing a comma”, he said, aside from some sloppy simplification when it was translated into the party’s election manifesto.

“A lot of people thanked me, but a lot of people accused me of collusion,” Professor Silvestri said. “If you want to advance science, you’ve got to do it in a non-partisan way.”

Five Star, as well as the League, wants to repeal a 2017 law which made childhood vaccination against 12 diseases compulsory; previously, only four vaccines were mandatory. However, Five Star and the League insist they are not anti-vaccination, just against obliging parents to inoculate.

The problem is not anti-science sentiment, said Professor Baccini, but the failure of politicians to be open with the data on which they base their decisions. Rather than do this, they enlist “scientist-heroes” who can provide “certain and irrefutable solutions” and “miraculous” cures, he said, which leads to public scepticism.

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