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Difficult integration of social science expertise into public health expert advice during pandemic in Italy

A new paper led by King’s Academic, Dr Silvia Camporesi, showed that the Italian government heavily relied on epidemiologists and infectious disease experts in response to the pandemic.

Coronavirus vaccination centre Turin
Coronavirus vaccination centre in Turin

When tackling the pandemic in 2020, Italy turned to its epidemiologists and infectious disease experts, favouring expertise from hard sciences over ‘soft’ sciences, a new paper finds.

As a result, it says, the Italians government failed to consider the longer-term outcomes of the strict lockdowns it imposed in order to save lives from COVID-19.

The new research, part of the international research project  EScAPE (Evaluating Scientific Advice in a Pandemic Emergency), explores how expert advice was used in the management of the COVID-19 emergency in Italy in 2020.

Italy was an interesting case study as it was the first country after China to face the devastating effects of the pandemic, and for which the level of uncertainty was highest. This meant it was initially reliant on China for data and needed to pave the way for how to respond. The government saw it first and foremost as a public health emergency, and as such, turned to its epidemiologists and infectious disease experts.– Dr Silvia Camporesi, Reader in Bioethics and Health Humanities in the Department of Global Health and Social Medicine and lead author of the paper

The paper also investigates the Italian government’s relationship with the experts it consulted. For example, how the government used minutes from the Technical and Scientific Committee (CTS) meetings, Italy’s main advisory body created to manage the health emergency, to create policies.

Its reliance on experts and science meant the government could create distance between itself and its policies – something seen in other countries across the world.

Members from the CTS and other advisory bodies were also unable to talk to the media. This in turn created a space for ‘unofficial’ experts to fill, and the paper suggests this may have led to the public’s decrease in trust of experts and science.

The paper concluded: "Expert-based politics can only be a temporary solution for politicians. The continued resorting to expert-based advice beyond the strict limits of the emergency can lead to diminished trust in experts with longstanding consequences for science."

Expert-based politics can only be a temporary solution for politicians. The continued resorting to expert-based advice beyond the strict limits of the emergency can lead to diminished trust in experts with longstanding consequences for science.

The EScAPE project is led by Roger J. Pielke, Professor of Environmental Studies and Policy at the University of Boulder Colorado, with funding from the UN National Science Foundation among others. 

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Silvia Camporesi

Silvia Camporesi

Visiting Professor in Bioethics