Italians and Science

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Italians have deep faith in science, but ask for a greater involvement.
81% reckons that without investing into research Italy is destined to a decline. The credibility of scientists is very high, but critical judgements about transparency and meritocracy are present as well: 64% thinks that “in the world of research only those who stand high in somebody’s favour can advance in their careers”. Over one interviewee out of two expects a more serious commitment from researchers to inform the citizens.

These are some of the data that emerge from Italians and Science. First report on science, technology and public opinion in Italy, edited by Valeria Arzenton and Massimiano Bucchi and published by Observa – Science in Society, with the support of Compagnia di San Paolo.

This study, included in the Annuario Scienza e Società 2008 (Science and Society Facts and Figures 2008), proposes a systematic set of original data on citizens’ attitudes and perceptions towards science and technology, set that was collected during 2007 by the Science and Society Monitor: a picture on the state of affairs regarding the relations between citizens and science, a novelty to our Country.

A synopsis

Italians express a certain degree of interest in science, fact that is revealed first and foremost through the fruition of scientific content present in the media: two-thirds of Italians read, at least sporadically, articles in the daily press about science and technology (while one third does so with regularity); 80% follows television programmes about science (one out of two regularly); over one out of two Italians sometimes reads popular scientific magazines (one out of three regularly).

Therefore, as a whole, the interviewees who are never exposed to science issues present in the media are only a few (15%). The remaining 85% is equally divided between the ones who find rare occasions to peruse scientific contents and the ones who search for them with a certain degree of frequency.

Visits to scientific museums and exhibitions are less common (they refer to little over one Italian out of four), like the participation in festivals and other public events, which are nonetheless recognised in their (at least potential) value as moments of dialogue and encounter with the world of research. A demand for increased opportunities of contact with the scientific world concerns one Italian out of two.

In terms of scientific literacy, Italians’ level reveals a tendency that is in line with the European average, and this appears realistically perceived by the interviewees themselves, as one out of two thinks their preparation is hardly sufficient to follow the major debates involving science issues, while over 25% perceives their preparation in negative terms.

The image of science that prevails in the public opinion is substantially positive: the vast majority of Italians recognises its benefits and the key role it plays in economic development.

Scientists emerge also as the most credible interlocutors when science and technology become socially relevant, followed by environmentalists and civic associations, while the political world appears in great credibility deficit on these matters.

However, the attitudes Italians hold towards science are not free from ambivalence, especially regarding more specific facets of the organisational aspects of research: for instance, quite a consistent number of interviewees shares a critical judgement both on the permeability of scientific research towards economic interests, and on the transparency of the recruitment procedures. Even more diffuse is the perception that Italian research is penalised by an excessive interference form the political world.
Scientific research is a priority in terms of public investment for one Italian out of six, after healthcare, education and the fight against criminality, but well before infrastructures and the road network. The research sectors that seem of higher concern for Italians are mainly the ones that involve the environment: renewable energy and climate change.

In general, a demand for a greater involvement in the decision-making processes about science and technology emerges at various levels: over 80% reckons the citizens should be more involved and 43% states that even the priorities in research should be defined with the participation of ‘all the citizens’.
In this light it becomes possible to interpret the diffuse expectation of a greater commitment from the researchers to inform the public on the results of their research.

The orientation of the public opinion about many of the specific issues that occupied the public debate on science and technology in 2007 presents significant elements of interest and novelty with respect to the past.

In particular, on the issue of climate the level of public sensitivity appears very high, even though not necessarily linked to the impact of the diffusion of scientific data.

Such sensitivity, together with an increasingly severe perception of the impact of urban pollution on health, is also highlighted in relation to the growing expectations towards the development of renewable energy sources and to the possible rearrangement of the forms of mobility.

On the other hand, with regards to the issues linked to energy, high levels of concern for the current economic and geopolitical environment – and for the relative costs and impediments in the supply from traditional sources – appear strongly associated with a pronounced drift towards nuclear energy: for the first time after the 1987 referendum, the rate of those who would be in favour of investments in this sector balances exactly the rate of the ones who are against them.

Finally, also the medical sector appears to be the focus of strong tensions and of transformations in terms of public perception.
As to themes like euthanasia and biological testament, also in the wake of recent debates and events, the public’s focus seems to have shifted, at least partially, from the need to protect life towards the respect for individual choices – 28% of Italians, however, remains against the interruption of the medical treatment also in cases in which the patient has no healing prospect.

Regarding homeopathy, the significant diffusion of homeopathic products appears linked neither to ignorance nor to a tout-court refusal of traditional medicine and of the scientific principles this relies onto. Particularly present amongst the most literate interviewees and in the financially wealthier regions, the utilisation of homeopathic products results in fact more or less complementary to – and not in antithesis with – the utilisation of conventional medicines.

(synopsis published in the Science and Society Facts and Figures 2008 and translated by Sara Pascoli)

The full version of “Italians and science” is to be found in the volume Science and Society Facts and Figures 2008 and is accessible in pdf format for the members of Observa – Science in Society (password required).

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