Italian Minister of Health authored the preface of a book supporting homoeopathy.

War on Science, yet another chapter. I think that anyone working in Science or caring about it, and anyone who aims to a growth in the public opinion’s awareness on the scientific issues of global interest, tends to spend some time to contrast hoaxes, misconceptions and anti-scientific propaganda. The most of the times, you end up returning references to the documents published by health and science officials to those ones claiming that “official science” is lying. If someone affirms that vaccines cause autism, or are potentially harmful for the child’s health, you may consider responding with data provided by health institutions. Likewise, if someone is keen to promote homoeopathy as a real cure, some documents published by the NIH, FDA or WHO, and proving its flat inefficacy, could turn out really useful. Basically, the most of the times, national and international health institutions are on your side, providing you and the whole public opinion with referenced data and clear positions in favour of  “official” biomedical science. But what happens if a national health institution turns its way, and starts supporting one of the major scientific hoaxes ever, such as homoeopathy?

This disturbing scenario has just become reality in Italy. The Minister of Health in charge, Beatrice Lorenzin, authored the preface of a book supporting homoeopathy, entitled In Praise Of Homoeopathy (Elogio della omeopatia) and written by Giovanni Gorga, president of an association of enterprises producing and delivering homoeopathic products. Even if the official position of the Ministry in matter of homoeopathy has remained unchanged, and homoeopathic products are sold in Italy as “medicals without any approved therapeutic indication“, this clear stance of the Minister Lorenzin generates concerns in the Italian scientific community.

The Italian non-profit organization CICAP, devoted since yeas to counteract the diffusion of anti-scientific information in Italy, has presented an open- letter to ask the Minister to clarify her position about the real efficacy of homoeopathic products, and to publicly declare that there are no evidences supporting it. The International Association of Italian Researchers (AIRI) is spending as well to spread this letter and rally the support of Italian researchers.

Being an ecologist and a radical leftist, I am very far from being a Beatrice Lorenzin’s supporter. Forty-four years old, serving as minister of health since the formation of the government led by Matteo Renzi in the spring of 2013, Beatrice Lorenzin grew her political career within the right-wing coalition led by Silvio Berlusconi. Anyways, I have always considered her a very reasonable woman and a politician of rare quality in the awful italian political landscape (not a big medal, actually). I am in fact pretty surprised by this awkward fail, and I still comfy that anything could be fixed.

I would limit to consider this fact as the usual yet another strange thing coming from Italy, or one of the many events stating how difficult the relationship between science and governance is, but I fear that something more serious is on the way. In the neo-liberal West, governments are all about economy, and the promotion of private sector has become the only concern of administrations of any political area. The last April, bloomberg published an insight pointing out that homoeopathy constitutes a billionaire market in the United States. I fear that the only element we don’t consider about this matter, is how much money an hoax could generate. Even if it is pretty clear that homoeopathic products have no effect on human health, it is still able to generate consent and to turn it into business and jobs. And a disturbing question comes along: will governments shut a wealthy sector for ethical reasons?

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Boobs for Science is ready to expatriate. English version to come the next week.

UPDATE 12/8: Boobs for Science is online and available at boobsforscience.com

I have already described the “Tette per la scienza” project (from italian: “Boobs for Science”) in a previous post, and I have been most likely one of the firsts writing about this story in English. The international press has put a lot of attention to this provocation hailing from Italy, in which women show up in bra or topless while holding a paper with a Science fact on.  On Reddit, this story gained quite a lot success, and very soon the major journals dedicated their attention to this bizarre blog.

As the DailyMail and the New York Daily News published their comments on this story, the viral blog authored by Lara Tait crossed the borders of Italy to become yet another curious, brainy and funny idea spreading worldwide. The blog keepers were actually planning to put a blog in English aside of their original one in Italian language, and the flood of visits coming from abroad encouraged them to speed up its creation.

On September 30th, the blog admins asked the users to help them in the translation of the website, rallying hundreds of messages of people who accepted to help the exportation of this amazing project abroad. In a few hours, the admin announced to have enough collaborators to translate “Tette per la Scienza” into its English counterpart “Boobs for Science”.

Despite this runs a bit away from the scopes of my blog, I keep an interest in this project, because in the same planet where Sarah Pailin lives, anything goes in terms of Science disclosure. And if boobs are effective to get the people to appreciate the wonders of Science, shall the boobs talk for us.

I will update this post as I get to know the boobs for science blog’s address.

UPDATE 12/8: Boobs for Science is online and available at boobsforscience.com

The City, the Rainbow, the Science. And Mafia. A story from Rome.

An half- circle, shiny and huge double rainbow towers the cloudy sky above Rome, in an early December afternoon. A truly heart-breaking view, that lovers and photographers have surely enjoyed. And the landscape of the Eternal City fits wonderfully with the pastel colours of this autumn sky. But the rainbow is not the only dome covering the City, as the clouds you may see in the sky are not the only ones darkening its sky. There is another dome, a real cupola that is oppressing anything here, and the clouds we see at the horizon don’t add any poetry to our life. They are dark, and truly scary. During the last days, a disconcerting serie of news updates have shown us a city we couldn’t just imagine. A huge, impressively organised, and deeply rooted criminal organisation has been found controlling the city. Investigators have discovered a disturbing connection between criminality, city authorities and far-right neofascist organisations controlling the city. A couple of days ago, 37 people were arrested, and the former mayor of Rome, the ultra-conservative and ex-fascist Gianni Alemanno, was charged for mafia conspiracy.

I guess that many foreigners won’t be really surprised of this story, and definitely won’t share my disconcert, since the stereotype linking Mafia and Italy is pretty spread around the world. In deed, in Italy we had a different view. The criminal organisations has always been deemed to be established in Southern Italy only, and massive infiltrations in local governments have never been demonstrated to happen northernmost of Naples before. In the last years, many investigations have found Mafia organisations to cross their historical borders, with huge scandals affecting the wealthy, and more “Continental” Northern Italy. More, many proofs indicate a huge presence of mafia gangs all around Europe, along with their strict control of the drug market in Germany and UK. With this Roman scandal, Mafia has been demonstrated to be all but a “Southern Italy thing” only, and its exclusive interlink with Sicily and Naples has now to be considered a stereotype on its turn.

But why am I talking about this, in a Science blog? I have always kept in high consideration the connotations of Science in politics. Having been a Free Knowledge, Open Science and Public Education activist while at the university, I had many opportunities to reflect about the social importance of an open and democratic Science. Among the many analyses I happened to read, during my university political activity, I have found those connecting the city and the cognitive production particularly interesting. In the so-called post-modern age, cognitive production gets a pivotal and leading role in globalised capitalism. The city, with its connections between universities, research centres, companies and individuals, plays a role in cognitive production that is comparable to the one that the Fordist factory plays in industrial production. Science and the city, the city and society, society and Science. A visceral connection, allowing us to appreciate how much research depends on the city politics, and the extent of science social connotations. That is why I take my time to explain the Roman situation, and I am a bit confident that the understanding of how things work here may be fruitful even for those who live outside this wonderful, and disgraced city.

Synergy vs discord: Rome and Barcelona.

During the last two years, I had the opportunity to work in both Barcelona and Helsinki. I have been in Barcelona for a short visiting at the CRG, and attended a training period at the University of Helsinki. If we want to find a model for a good and effective connection between the city and Science production, Barcelona serves as a perfect example of synergy. Three main universities, associated with three neighbouring science parks, in a perfectly integrated bioregion, made up by the connection between universities, research centres and private companies.

In Rome, the global amount of research groups is quite higher than Barcelona. The three main universities are leaded by the Sapienza University, the biggest athenaeum in Europe. More than 15 public research institutes are spread over the city, accounting thousands employees. Differently from Barcelona, the research institutions are poorly interconnected. I am working at the Santa Lucia Institute as a Bioinformatician from September, and I don’t have a global idea on who is working on bioinformatics in Rome, and where. Very often, these institutions are seriously in competition, because of the small founding provided at government level. More, the lack of communication is worsen by the low number of private companies working in biotech in Rome area. Usually, private companies give a big contribution in the establishment of a well-functioning bioregion, because they know they can grow their business thanks to a proper collaboration network. In Italy is very hard to run a company, even just a small startup, because of the overwhelming bureaucracy, and the heavy tax charged applied to small companies.

Whereas institutions should work to ease the communication between research centres, they do about nothing to ease this process, and they seem mostly aimed at doing the contrary, or rather, adding discord where synergy would be needed. That is why, I can fairly affirm that a real “Roman bioregion” doesn’t really exist.

Mobility, city structure and speculation.

You can understand how much mobility is important only by spending a week or two in Rome. In other cities, things like buses and metros may be taken for granted. The capital of Italy, and the biggest city in the European Union in terms of surface, is provided with only two complete metro lines. The third line, the “C Line”, is not complete yet, and its construction is suffering from endless delays. Moreover, the city has grown dramatically in the latest decades. An infamous policy, aimed at favouring speculation, has let the city to grow uncontrollably. The lack of a proper planning scheme, along with a severe lack of public transportation, render the mobility within the city really adventurous. The effects on Science are clear if we consider the location of research centres. Spread mostly in the outskirts, they are very distant one another. I still remember the discomfort of a couple of colleagues in my laboratory who needed to withdraw some mice at the EMBL in Monterotondo. The Santa Lucia Foundation is located in Southern Rome, whereas the EMBL is in the Northern hinterland. This is the route you’d have to do in order to go with public transportation. Of course, they have chosen to go by car. Just 40 minutes for 50 kilometres.

A science park would be needed, well provided with core facilities, in order to not force a PhD student to transport lab materials and animals by car. Actually, this is what they planned when they have built the structure where the Santa Lucia Foundation is hosted. Unfortunately, right after construction the whole area went out of funding, and half building ran into abandon. Far away from European standards.

The effects on society: critical thinking and democracy improvement.

Science has the potential to prevent society from running into racism and corruption. That is why, I believe, it’s so contrasted in my country. Usually, the city authorities tend to promote science disclosure and cultural events. Unfortunately, the general cutoff that affected public services during the last crisis, didn’t spare cultural activities. Differently from other situations I explored, the city authorities make a small effort to promote the outreach of research institutes, and the same institutes are not putting much interest in communicating with the population.

The effects are disruptive. Italian public opinion is prey for any populistic campaigns. The mafia of Rome made a big effort in convincing the people that gipsies were responsible for terrible crimes, while they were exploiting those communities to impropriate of European fundings allocated for ROM communities integration. The most of the people in Rome, ran into racism, without any capability to distinguish from real datas describing phenomena, and the claims of a corrupted press that aims to the spread of xenophobia.

The antagonist, do-it-yourself and hacker environment.

There is one last thing that is crucial in a good Science policy within a city. Far from institutions and public funding, the volunteering in Science spreading and improvement is fundamental. In this, Rome is fervidly active instead. The state of abandon of many buildings, along with the great spread and establishment of antagonist movement, favoured the occupation of many “centri sociali”, independent and radical community centres. Acting as independent organisations devoted to cultural promotion, they often organise conference and courses. The hacker movement has known a great spread from the 90s, with Indymedia activists, autistici.org an independent service provider guaranteeing data privacy, and quite a lot counter-information websites and community radios. I remember when I joined a linux course at the community centre “Strike SPA“. I ended up learning linux bases and appending the principles of hacker culture. I was barely in my 20s, and running back with my mind, that was most likely the moment when I decided to join bioinformatics. Within the universities, collectives organise self-training courses (autoformazione), and linux- mac- and arduino- user groups are present in all the campuses. No exaggeration in saying that this independent and underground cultural activity impresses a significant improvement of the average cultural level of the city. Of course, it is the demonstration that things could be far better in Rome, if we’d manage to get rid of this suffocating cupola of mafia, misgovernment and corruption.

I really don’t want to show up as the typical endlessly-complaining frustrated Italian. I know that I share my part of responsibility with all my countrymen, and that complaints must make way to the commitment, as we are called to put a huge effort in changing our way to stay together.

I’d rather underline a point. The functioning of a good scientific environment depends a lot on how much scientists are able to fruitfully interact, exchange informations, and collaborate. It’s very linked with the cultural fervidity of a society, and the capability of scientists to get people to understand and appreciate their work. This means, in terms of Systems Theory, that the most important thing in science production is the grade of complexity of the academia-city system. And this must be our main and ultimate aim here in Rome: a better City for a better Science, a better Science to make the City better.

I must confess I really enjoyed that rainbow. In some way, it had somewhat of forgiveness, and looked pretty comforting. As the whole universe told us to chill down, because not everything is lost. As the police crosses the city, people gets arrested, and another judicial blood-bath takes place, we are all in front of a choice. We can either fall asleep, once again, with that awful belief that nothing will change, just to indulge, time to time, to our usual and annoying complaints. Or we can take this as a starting point, a new day, where our commitment gets stronger than our difficulties.

Let me conclude this long article with an expression of solidarity and support to our mayor Ignazio Marino, who is fighting this system since the beginning of its mandate. Marino is a Medical Doctor, who had a professorship at the University of Pittsburg, where he performed the first organ transplant in history in an HIV patient, and authored more than 170 papers. He’s now the man who is supposed to drag the City outside this muddle, and he’s now living escorted after the death threats he received. A man of Science. Not by chance.

Rosetta: the disconcerting reaction of Italian right-wing media.

Rosetta project’s success can be considered as the best achievement of space exploration in European history, a victory for the mankind and for anyone supporting European unification, as I do. Unfortunately, not everyone seems to appreciate, or to understand the scale of this event.

What I am going to report, it’s just shocking. The Italian channel Rete4 played a crucial and cussed role in the rise and establishment of Berlusconi’s 20 years long rule. Owned by the Mediaset group, the news channel used to faithfully and slavishly spread the conservative propaganda, with a long list of mystifications, and continuous attacks to minorities and homosexuals. As Berlusconi turned his foreign policy into a deeply anti-European and pro-Russian action, his media followed him with unjustified and false attacks to the European Union. They never dealt that much with Science too, supporting very often creationism and funding cutoffs to research. After Rosetta landing, Rete4 decided to give its opinion. What it follows is the literal translation of the Rete4 commentary.

If we had ever found a truly fascinating celestial body, even more than the moon, that would be a comet, with its shiny tail, visible during the day too. (…) Even if almost nobody knew that, from 2004 the ESA (European Space Agency) is working to waste us this image. Ten years ago, Rosetta probe was launched, and after a very long and lonely voyage, has now reached the 67P comet, more than 800 Kms away from the Sun. Here’s the pictures, the crude pictures, of a big dusty stone. On this rock, a robot will land down in a few hours, and it will make an hole on the surface. It almost hurts to know that the drill was built in Italy. A stone, nothing more than a stone, not even with the dark fascination the terrible comet had in the movie Armageddon. Scientists are most likely the only ones to get excited for this. They explain that Rosetta mission will bring us insights on the origins of life, that probably came on the Earth right on the tail of a comet. The mission costed, until now, more than 100 millions euro. Honestly too much, even to retrieve an archaeological relic of the universe.

If you understand Italian language, here’s the full video.

There are three main things I want to point out about this creepy comment. The first is evident: the low cultural level of the person who wrote this. The superficiality with which the whole fact is reported, and the poor language, are proving that the editorial staff just ignores the basics of Science that are expected at a School level. The second point is also relevant, even if not very evident. The commentary highlights the difference between the beauty of art and religion, and the cruel realism and rationality of Science. This is, unfortunately, very common in Italy. For historical reasons, Science has always been deemed as a minor culture, respect the dominating humanistic culture. The third thing to underline, is about the money. They point out that the project costed more than 100 million euro, but they “forget” to mention that the amount has been spent in ten years and, doing the math, any european payed 3.50 euro to get this extraordinary result.

I understand that if I keep reporting all the defects of my country, readers will run into bore, but I think there are some points of interest in this story. The “war on Science” is a common feature of conservative policies all around the world, and Sarah Pailin’s awkward statement on Drosophila research is just one of the many possible examples. In any context, the war on Science proceeds with the same strategy. The trust in Science is weakened in public opinion, by diffusing misconceptions, superstitions and conspiracy theories. This effort is reinforced by a systematic cut-off policy in public education. This provides the suitable ground to decimate the public funding in research. The ultimate aim is to kill the critical thinking, in order to better control the public opinion and be eased in populistic and racist campaigns.

Differently from the US, where the importance of research funding is still well understood at government level, in Italy this attack worked a lot. Schools are in the red, public research funding just ceased to exist, our school students are the most ignorant in Europe, and racism is spreading out with alarming rapidity.

Luckily, things are changing as the Berlusconi’s rule went belly up. The most of commenters on social networks are literally rising up against the Mediaset’s TV channel, whose comment didn’t killed the interest in Rosetta project historic achievement.

Boobs for Science: girls showing up in Italy to spread Science.

As someone out there may have noticed, we have an issue or two with Science in Italy. Unfortunately, our education system has been built on the idea that “culture is humanities, science is technic”, a terrible misconception dating back to the Fascism, whereas the “cultural level” of a person is evaluated on the basis of what he knows about art, history and literature only. This causes a poor interest in Science from the public opinion, and the spread of hoaxes and conspiracy theories. On the main social networks, profiles dedicated to chemtrails, “vivisection”, alternative medicine (as in “Baking Soda as a cancer cure”) and other crap, are dangerously spreading up, increasing people’s aversion towards Science. Luckily, someone is fighting back. I cannot help but mention the great work the guys at “Resistenza Razionale” (rational resistance) are making, along with many spontaneous associations of scientists and enthusiasts. Among them, a pretty curious, definitely hilarious, but still very interesting and effective project caught my attention.

Many people love boobs, and a picture showing up a well-made pair of soft bosoms, gets to be very attractive on the internet. What if you put some Science in? According to Wired Italia journalist Marta Magni, if you “summarize science and boobs, you get an explosion of good things raised to the nth power”. Tette per la Scienza, “Boobs for Science”, is a Tumblr blog whose description is pretty clear about the author’s intent : “where reason fails, boobs have a chance”. The deal is quite simple: women reading the blog are encouraged to send a pic of their boobs while holding a paper sheet with a Science statement on. Statements can range from a debunking up to a curiosity. So, you can find a gorgeous C-cup in black bra telling you that “gluten is harmless for non- celiac people”, or a topless that is pretty clear about the importance of GMO in fighting world hunger.

In the twilight zone between provocation and feminism, the blog’s author Lara, anthropologist with a passion for new media, is rapidly gaining the attention of italian blogosphere.

As the site began to spread,  controversy came along, with many people claiming with contempt that this is yet another way to scorn the female body. I really sense that the concentration of imbeciles trolling the internet is a bit higher in Italy, but that is just a personal opinion. In deed, I take this as a very smart and provocative idea, effectively reporting the embarrassingly shallow approach of italian readers to information.

In any picture, you may choose to stare at boobs, or explore the Science. This means that you may be someone interested in the nth boobs site, or someone interested in Science. It’s up to you. I am actually enjoying this quite a lot, since I am very interested in both 😀 .

Researchers get *shot* in Italy as #ScienceBulletChallenge goes viral.

#ScienceBulletChallenge is a viral initiative aimed at reporting the untenable labor conditions of scientists in Italian public research centres. A recent investigation claims that, in the last decade, the 93,3% of italian Science personnel was hired according to the so- called “precarious employment contracts”. In Italy, we use the term “precarious” (precario) to indicate those employment contracts that are limited in time, and usually payed with a monthly income ranging around 1000 euros. When I say “limited in time”, I am pretty serious about the definition of “limited”. Many contracts last one year, but you will often get to talk with people having a stipend guaranteed for few months only. Also, the dramatic rise of inflation in recent times has meant that you just cannot live in a big city with 1000 Euros per month.

The worst part is that there is a dramatic consequence on researchers’ private life. The same investigation states that the 74% of the population sample considered has no children, although the mean age is 35. You cannot really ponder to have a family when you are not even sure of your fate in coming months. Many very advanced research centers in Europe are giving a lot of importance to the quality of life of their employees, because Science activity needs creativity to be productive, and creativity needs a good overall quality of life to be expressed. You can only imagine how much this situation is affecting Science production in Italy.

Anyways, maybe not everything is lost in terms of creativity here, as this #ScienceBulletChallenge witnesses. The deal is quite simple: as in the world-famous “ice bucket challenge”, you are dared to publish a video on social media. No ice bucket, but a “bullet” of choice. The challenged will get shot by a fictional weapon to show how researchers are “shot” and polished off everyday by the insane italian policy on public research. If you are adventurous enough to deal with Italian language, you may browse the official website. The initiative has been contrived and promoted by three anonymous researchers from Sapienza University in Rome.

Proud to join the #HeForShe campaign.

 

The future of the planet depends on the possibility to enable the access to education and leadership for all women. In fact, women are the ones supposed to comply the harder, but very constructive duty to invent and manage peace.

Rita Levi Montalcini.

A couple of lines about the #HeForShe campaign are very needed. As a biologist, I often used to work along with women, and I think that everyone in Science will agree with me if I mention the importance of women in research. Unfortunately, gender discrimination and prejudice are still present in our faculties, especially in my country, Italy. I believe that calling men for action in this is a great idea. In spite of the unbelievably diffused idea that men and women are in competitio, sexism is something harming everyone, and must be fought back by anyone.

So, I enthusiastically join the #HeForShe campaign and call all of you guys to take action as well.