I recently spent some time on a family vacation in Italy. We have a tradition in our family; at the dinner table, each of us has to say the best and the worst thing that happened to him or her during the day. It is always a fun moment that kids love, and it allows adults to pause and reflect on the day gone by. During our vacation, as you may imagine, the topics were very light and it was always hard to find the worst thing because it was pretty much a state of bliss.
But on August 30 our dinner table conversation was dominated by the best thing of my day. It was the appointment of Elena Cattaneo as Lifetime Senator by the Italian President Giorgio Napolitano. Elena is an eminent stem cell biologist who has made fundamental contributions in research on Huntington's disease. She is also a good friend, and a former colleague. I could not have been happier on that day, most of all because of the phenomenal recognition that such a deserving person has received, but also because I realized what an interesting role a scientist like Elena can now play on behalf of the whole scientific community.
I seldom turn to Italy for inspiration about policy or science policy given that, despite some laudable exceptions, the system in my native land is quite dysfunctional. But this appointment opened my eyes to what could be a really good thing, something that may be missing in the U.S.
A young, energetic, and very active scientist, Elena is now in a position—above party lines but still with a vote in the Italian Senate— to seriously drive an agenda for science. She can press on as the strong public advocate for science that she has always been, but now from within the constitutional governing structure and yet in a non-partisan, non-political role. She can be an invaluable resource in the policy discourse to keep science on the radar screen in Rome.
This is a prestigious recognition. Each Italian President can nominate up to five lifetime Senators during his time in office. This August, President Napolitano appointed three others besides Elena Cattaneo—the legendary orchestra conductor Claudio Abbado, world-famous architect Renzo Piano (remember the Centre Pompidou in Paris or the New York Times building?), and physics Nobel laureate Carlo Rubbia. This should give you some sense of the caliber of lifetime Senators and the role that a scientist could play in such a position.
While it is hard to imagine a system in the U.S. involving lifetime Senators, we often underestimate the power of having scientists embedded within institutions. For example, it's been debated whether technical agencies, like NIH or NSF, should be administered by political appointees as they are now. Some complain that the current practice politicizes science.
Personally, I believe that it is essential to have Presidential appointees as heads of our scientific agencies because this ultimately strengthens the voice of science in Washington. Still it would be interesting, and perhaps helpful, to have scientists in formal but non-political roles in the legislative branch, perhaps along the lines of a newly minted Science Senator Cattaneo on Capitol Hill. Still, I must confess that I have a hard time imagining a cell biologist chairing the Senate Appropriations Committee. But who knows? Certainly a cell biologist might unlock the currently gridlocked budget process with a stirring PowerPoint presentation on lipid rafts or centromeres.
At any rate, I wish the new Senator Elena Cattaneo all the best in her new career. I encourage her to be influential, as I am sure she will be, without muddling with the politics with the small p and be a transformative agent from within the Senate for better policies for scientists and patients in Italy, but also around the world.
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