Capua’s revolutionary decision

Linda Santini

Collegio Nuovo – Fondazione Sandra e Enea Mattei

Although Italy has one of the lowest ratios of investment in research and development, the history of the virologist Ilaria Capua is a case of excellence of our research at international level that deserves to be underlined, especially because there are some important peculiarities about it. Collegio Nuovo – Fondazione Sandra e Enea Mattei (in Pavia, Italy) had the honor of hosting this “Revolutionary Mind” (awarded by “Seed Magazine”) from which each of us should learn something. In particular, during the conference held last autumn, she told the story of her life, showing how each person could trigger a change, even in less privileged conditions. How to do this?

The starting point of her speech was a simple consideration: in Italy, making excellent research is really challenging, also due to the economic crisis that impacts on the ranking of sectors of public investment. One of the main reasons that explains this situation is that in the Italian Parliament there is only a handful of scientists, among whom Ilaria Capua and Elena Cattaneo (stem cell researcher), and Past Minister of Education, University and Research, Maria Chiara Carrozza (a biomedical engineer). Italy needs radical changes, it should follow the example of China, Brazil, Japan, where 40% of the members of the national parliament are researchers and/or scientists.  Indeed, research and knowledge are assets that we need to improve for the development of a civil nation and its democratic participation.

Moreover, nowadays it is very hard to change the internal mechanisms of the international health policy, especially if they are recognized as the best and adopted by the majority of the scientists and researchers. Nevertheless, as Capua’s experience has showed, an adjustment is possible. She indeed made possible a change.

In 2006 she challenged the WHO, refusing to settle the genetic sequence of a new flu virus in a database, whose access was limited only to 15 laboratories, and so she decided not to enter in a club of elected scientists. She instead shared her findings with Gen Bank, an open-access database, making them available to the entire scientific community. And this was a strong revolutionary decision.

Her act was due mainly to an ethical reason: to face the avian flu emergency, strong measures were needed and it was necessary for everybody to work together. Another reason of the difficult choice was the following: in her opinion, the results of a research financed by public funds have to be public and not reserved for the few. She is a public employee paid to protect the health of animals and people: she knows she did the right thing, the most logic one, following the common sense. She is aware of the important role of science in relation to the entire community and of the responsibility of those who work in the public sector, a system that too often lacks transparency. Knowledge is a public good, which can not be privatized or available for a small group of selected laboratories. From that period, it was no more possible having limited-access health databases.

Capua is the first woman that in 2011 won the prestigious Penn Vet Leadership in Animal Health Award. The University of Pennsylvania assigned it and gave to the Italian researcher the international prize of $ 100,000. This award, one of the most important ones, is given annually to a veterinarian who has “significantly altered the image and practice of the profession and has influenced the lives and careers of other people.”

At the end of the conference, Capua noted that, especially in Italy, it is still hard for women to reach top positions. In order to obtain remarkable results, women have to be brave and ready to take risks. They need to desire to stand out, they need to be able to make daring choices and to be drivers of change.

She also gave us some tips.  First: travel a lot and think out of the box, even if it is difficult, because it is the only way to survive, especially as a researcher. Old mechanisms are no more appropriate, there is a need for fresh ideas. Second: you must be ready to recognize and exploit, as best as you can, with optimism and enthusiasm, the opportunities you’ll find in your life. This is one of the way you have to reach the top. Third: you have to work hard and believe in what you are doing in order to succeed: you need to be proud of your work. Do not be afraid to feel inadequate, to be yourself.

The take home message is pretty simple and perfectly in accordance also with what we, as Collegio Nuovo students, experiment in our daily life: you need to reach out and grab your future. Good luck!

Linda Santini

International Business & Economics, Collegio Nuovo – Fondazione Sandra e Enea Mattei, Pavia