Health in the Factory: The Historical Roots of Italian Citizen Science

This post is part of Bill of Health’s symposium on Critical Studies Citizen Science in Biomedical Research. In this post, Giulia Frezza and Mauro Capocci offer a historical look at how workers and scientists shaped a new approach to occupational and environmental health in Italy, asking if current practices of citizen science share the lineages of such radical movements. Background on the symposium is here. You can call up all of the symposium contributions already published by clicking here.

By Giulia Frezza and Mauro Capocci

The radical movement  critique of science in the turbulent decades of 1960s-70s in Italy, is a significant episode that can be useful for a critical reappraisal of contemporary definitions of the scope and the aims of Citizen Science (CS).

In those years, the deep social transformation of Italian society also involved a new perception of science and technology which emphasized that science was not neutral. Far from being a tool for workers’ empowerment, it became apparent that science and technology were ideologically determined. Trespassing the orthodox boundaries of Marxism, a group of scientists advocated a new relationship between science and society, while at the same time workers understood that they needed a new alliance with scientists in order to foster real social progress. An early result of this movement was the involvement of researchers and health professionals in the struggle for better working conditions within the factory. Through their personal experience and developing hegemonic power, workers criticized the traditional notions of risk management and health protection by actively collecting data and pointing to flaws in the existing industrial systems and the science behind them. Eventually, this activism resulted in a widespread science-based “Health in the Factory” movement. At the same time, a large number of sympathetic physicians and epidemiologists engaged in social efforts to create groups and associations that lent scientific support to activists. This proved to be of paramount importance when tragic accidents happened, such as the Seveso and Manfredonia chemical explosions that occurred within the span of a few months in 1976. Such tragedies proved instrumental for breaking “the illusory boundary” separating the factory and the outside world; the impact of what took place inside the production sites was far-reaching. Industrial accidents eventually connected local ecology, the city environment, families, citizens, scientists studying harmful substances in the lab, and society as a whole. These events were a turning point for spreading social awareness, allowing local struggles to turn into national developments, and resulting in the evolution of the public health system and regulations of risk prevention (exposure thresholds, health assessment of working conditions, prevention and management of industrial accidents).

This ante-litteram participatory science – with citizens creatively involved in scientific activity – required the development of hybrid languages and innovative epistemology. Workers and scientists cooperated in shaping a new approach to occupational and environmental health, within the context of a radical deconstruction of current narratives about science, society and the ethics of economic growth. Three main features characterize the “Health in the factory” movement in 1970s Italy:

  1. the role of the patient as opposed to physician’s traditional paternalistic attitude;
  2. the social causes of illness, human driven, especially evident in the development of the Occupational Health Movement;
  3. focus on prevention, as the keyword for putting the very concept of health and well-being at the core of any scientific investigation fostering people’s right to health.

Can we trace current practices of citizen science to the several examples of social involvement in health sciences in the past decades, when there were many radical mass movements across Western Europe? Does current discourse on citizen science fail or succeed in grasping the significance of historical examples such as our Italian case study? Furthermore, our reconstruction shows the need to historically situate the production of science and the importance of the symmetric creation and circulation of scientific information in order to generate participatory science projects, especially  in the new wake of populistic trends affecting public perceptions of science and science policy.

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