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Antivaccine protesters outside the lower chamber of the Italian Parliament in Rome in July 2017.

Giuseppe Lami/ANSA/AP

Rise of nationalist and populist parties has Italian scientists worried

The outcome of Sunday’s parliamentary elections in Italy was a stunning victory for populist and nationalist parties, and a clear warning to Italy’s political establishment and the European Union. But some in Italy worry that the results may also have a negative impact on science.

There were two big winners: the populist, web-based Five Star Movement (M5S) and the hard-right, anti-immigrant League, which ran in a coalition with Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and other right-wing parties. Both have come under fire for taking antiscientific positions on issues such as vaccination and animal testing. Together, these parties obtained more than three-quarters of the seats in the two legislative chambers.

Whether the outcome will trigger major science policy shifts is still unclear; negotiations to form a new government, led by President Sergio Mattarella, will be complex and protracted, and their outcome is hard to predict. But Italy’s scientific community “will not allow an antiscience government,” says Maria Chiara Carrozza, a professor in industrial bioengineering at the Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies in Pisa, Italy, and a former education and research minister. “We will make our voices heard,” she says.

Exactly where M5S and the League stand on science policy is often hard to tell. The only science-related issue during the campaign was vaccination. Antivaccine sentiments run deep among members of M5S and the League, and both parties want to repeal a controversial law introduced in 2017 that made childhood vaccination against 12 diseases compulsory. (Previously, only four vaccines were compulsory; the law was a response to a major measles outbreak triggered by declining vaccination rates.)

The parties’ election platforms don’t provide much guidance either. The League and the right-wing coalition only have vague references to research in their collective electoral program, including a call for “more freedom” for families in education and health choices, a reference to the vaccination law. M5S’s program includes some environmental positions, including economic “degrowth,” a focus on renewable energy, and a complete ban on the cultivation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). But it’s mum on most other issues.

Before the election, a group named Dibattito Scienza, created in 2013 and inspired by the U.S.-based Science Debate, sent all parties a series of questions on science-related issues. None of the right-wing parties provided answers; M5S answered only three of the 10 questions, claiming it does not have “an official position shared by all party affiliates” on issues such as homeopathy, tech transfer, and research funding.

M5S is now a strong political force. I hope they will be able to adopt science-based policies and act responsibly.

Maria Chiara Carrozza, former education and research minister

But what they have seen so far has some scientists worried. In the past, M5S parliamentarians have voiced support for all kinds of fake news and conspiracies, including that “chemtrails” or implanted microchips can control human behavior and the notion that the moon landing was faked. M5S senators have also clashed on several occasions with Elena Cattaneo, a stem cell scientist at the University of Milan in Italy and senator for life who often acts as a spokesperson for the scientific community in the Senate. Cattaneo compiled a 1500-page dossier for all parliamentarians on GMO research and used it in a number of debates to fight unsubstantiated claims by M5S about the risk posed by transgenic crops. She has also investigated the work of Federico Infascelli, an animal nutritionist who’s close to M5S, after he claimed in a parliamentary hearing that GMOs are dangerous to human health. (Cattaneo’s investigation eventually led to the retraction of one of Infascelli’'s papers.)

But Elena Fattori, who was re-elected as a senator for M5S on Sunday, rejects the notion that her movement is antiscientific. Fattori acknowledges that M5S’s base has many “antiscience people” and that in a grassroots organization, “sometimes it is difficult to make them understand that not everything can be voted online.” But on vaccines, “Our final position is to recommend vaccines, not impose them,” she says, and M5S’s candidate for prime minister, 31-year-old Luigi Di Maio, “has made clear that nonscientific positions have no room in a political movement that wants to govern.” The fact that Di Maio has put the names of oncologist Armando Bertolazzi and agricultural and environment researcher Alessandra Pesce on a list of possible M5S ministers proves that he is serious, she says.

“M5S is now a strong political force, I hope they will be able to adopt science-based policies and act responsibly,” Carrozza says. Scientists “will need to involve citizens more,” she adds.

Regardless of which parties end up forming the new government, science is not likely to be a priority. “The problem is that we don’t know exactly what to expect,” says Emilio Molinari, director of the Astronomical Observatory of Cagliari in Italy, which is part of the Italian National Astrophysics Institute. “What is M5S’s position on basic research? No one knows. Parties will have to come to a difficult agreement if they want to govern. I am afraid science will not be part of it.”

“I hope the next science minister, whoever that is, understands even basic science is a safe investment,” Molinari says. “I don’t expect a collapse for Italian science, but I would like an act of courage.”

Ivano Eberini, a biochemist at the University of Milan, says that policy-makers should always reject antiscientific positions, but that taking questionable ideas from the web to the parliament can actually be a good thing. “The web and social media favor public discussion. Science is becoming relevant among citizens; heated debates prove that,” he says. “This is good news for those who want to consolidate the idea that science is important and necessary,” Eberini says—especially in a country that invests relatively little in research.


Update, 7 March 2018, 10.00 a.m.: The last paragraph has been edited to better reflect Eberini's position.