By Jessica Smrekar
As the third keynote speaker, Dr. Ilaria Capua broke the mold and gave the conference a personal, quick, intimate glance into a darker side of the relationship between science and government. This particular keynote described her story of shame, falsification, and the effects populism on the scientific community. She began by stating this was the hardest speech she has ever had to give and that we would understand why by the end of it. She then set the scene by speaking of the turmoil of the modern age and how this age has brought along hard times for everyone. Politics, science, journalism, all lack the respect and compassion that keeps society grounded. Dr. Capua went on to describe the shift society has undergone towards a “populist” and “post-truth” movement. The combination of these two ideologies has begun to shift public opinion away from fact-based knowledge and aims to appeal to emotional based reactions. Dr. Capua defined populism as a set of ideas or activities geared to get support from ordinary people by giving them what they want. Post-truth was defined as an ideology that denotes circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in the public opinion than emotional response. In this “fake news” era occurring now, it seems that populism, post-truth, and science are oil and water. While populism instigates decision-making based on sentiment in searching for “good” and “bad,” science is not so black and white. Through post-truth extravagant interpretation of scientific breakthroughs, including vaccines, animal use in laboratories, and genetically modified organisms, populism has begun to chip away at the credibility of scientists and their respective studies. This was the trap that Dr. Capua found herself caught in.
A veterinarian by training, Dr. Capua began her career as director of the Division of Biomedical Science of the Istituto Zooprofilattico Sperimentale delle Venezie in Padua, Italy. She found herself smack in the middle of the H7N1 avian influenza pandemic in 1999 and began to migrate toward avian influenza research. Fast-forward to the 2005 H5N1 pandemic, Dr. Capua was hard at work sequencing the pandemic virus to further research on a vaccination program. Her research caught the eye of the World Health Organization, who confronted her and demanded the sequence be kept from the public domain. Dr. Capua, believing in transparency and sharing of data, refused the orders and published her virus sequence on the website GenBank, which allows the sequence to be available to fellow scientists and sparked the beginning of a data sharing debate.
This particular act of rebellion put Dr. Capua on the map and brought her to the attention of the then Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti. Wishing to bridge the gap between science and government, Monti propositioned Dr. Capua to join the Italian Parliament as a member of the Camera dei Deputati (Chamber of Deputies). Hoping to work with politicians to strengthen the research field, she agreed and begun her stint as a public figure. During her time in Parliament, Dr. Capua was extremely vocal on scientific issues, including promoting research on antimicrobial resistance, Ebola awareness and response, and defending EU policy on animal research.
After only a year into her political career, Dr. Capua’s troubles began. An article in the Italian magazine Espresso ran a story accusing Dr. Capua of working with private pharmaceutical companies to develop commercial agreements to sell vaccines for a profit. This story hit the mainstream media like a wildfire. Not long after this was published, Dr. Capua was brought up on formal accusations in 2014 of corruption, abuse of power, trafficking of an illegal virus, and causing an epidemic of influenza. These charges would have earned her a lifetime prison sentence. These accusations were filed following an investigation that was started in 2005. Evidence was based largely on phone-tapped conversations of Dr. Capua from 2005 to 2008 and her writings on data sharing. It was at this point in the lecture Dr. Capua explained how her phone calls had been used as “evidence.” She walked the convention through how the misinterpretation of her conversations changed the theme of them from data sharing and collaborating with other scientists to one of smuggling, selling, and rogue lab work.
With these allegations, Dr. Capua found herself isolated from the rest of the world, a pariah in the real world and unwelcomed in the scientific community. During this particular part of the keynote, she broke from her story telling to reveal a more emotional side. She spoke of her despair in being caught in a fabricated story and her lack of power to change the minds of those who believed the propaganda. She spoke of how the Parliament process could take up to 10 years and how she felt there was no way out of her predicament. In the midst of such despair, Dr. Capua preached strength and resilience and continued on with her story.
In 2016, she made the decision to resign from her position in Parliament, leave Italy, and thus obtained a job as the Department Director of the One Health Center of Excellence for Research and Training at the University of Florida. Three weeks following her move to the States, Dr. Capua’s case was dismissed on the basis of a fabrication of evidence against her. Thus, Dr. Capua’s reputation was restored and she was free to return to her scientific career. Though her scientific credibility was no longer in question, it was clear Dr. Capua had been a victim of a political smear campaign that was unrelated to her work.
With her final words, Dr. Capua emphasized how unsure she feels after experiencing such a destructive reaction to standing her ground. She shared her apprehensions on the merits of fighting for science, on whether it was worth it, and if others could survive such targeting. She stressed the need to be vigilant on credibility within the sciences to combat such falsified advances. Dr. Capua ended her keynote speech with a warning that her predicament could happen to any scientist and that she is using her voice and her story to educate those who take a stand for science. Upon the conclusion her speech, she was greeted with a standing ovation from a packed ballroom, all standing in solidarity with her and moved by her strength and bravery. It was a truly humbling and sobering to see Dr. Capua demonstrate such bravery in sharing her story that revealed the underbelly of working for a better world.