“The effects of poor popularization are not usually noticed”


Interview with PERE ESTUPINYÀ
Writer and science popularizer


Pere Estupinyà is a biochemist. He gave up on his doctorate in genetics to devote his efforts to the popularization of science. He has published two books of this kind, and we will shortly be seeing him on television. He will be one of those participating in “100xCIENCIA”  and he thinks highly of an event where the Severo Ochoa centres of excellence can meet together with specialists in outreach, and science journalists.


Why did you decide to become a science popularizer?

“I liked science very much, and was a bit of an addict of science outreach. In particular I was a fan of the programme REDES on Spanish National Television (TVE). I thought that science popularization would be a very stimulating profession. I did a couple of amateur pieces, I liked it, and so I decided to take the step to becoming a professional”.


How do you rate science popularization in Spain? Are the times good for this?

“In my opinion yes, there are many openings, almost a boom. So much so that I’m not really sure that so many participants are really necessary. I sometimes think that there is more quantity than quality, and that we ought to start work on a more professional approach. There are no impact evaluations. One thing which is not usually taken into account are the negative effects of poor popularization”.


Soon we are going to see you on a TV programme. What can you tell us in advance about it?

“I find it extremely difficult to talk about books, programmes, or projects before they are finished. I can tell you that the title will be “The Brain Thief”, that it will be on TVE, that we are utterly enthusiastic, and that it will be shot on a lot of different sets, some of them outdoors". 


- One of your most recent productions was the book S=EX2. The science of sex. Was the general public really interested in sex from a scientific point of view? Were you commissioned to write it by a publisher, or was it your own idea?

“It was a project which sprang from my own interest. It is a fascinating theme. The public was very interested in it, but less than we had thought. To me, the academic study of sex is one of the most multidisciplinary study which I have come across, and gives tremendous scope to talk about science in a way which is attractive to people in general”.


In an interview about this book you said  “Sex is not so important”. Is that really so?

“I said it in the sense that sometimes we give it more importance than it deserves. This is partly because it has been tabú, and is surrounded by shame and fear. When it is treated more naturally and as something positive you realize that really at times there is not so much in it!”.


Another of your popularizing books was “The Brain Thief”. What is our brain like? What surprised you most about it?

“I was surprised that for all its complexity it works so well. It made me think that really the principles on which it works must be much simpler than they seem to be. As far as its working is concerned, the other day I was talking to Rafa Yuste, the man behind the BRAIN project, and he made me realize that we know a little about the synapses, and a bit more about the areas involved in specific funcions, but we are as yet unable to visualize the complete neuronal network, which is where the information is really encoded. They are beginning to map it, but the maps are still static, rather like looking at the map of the streets of a city without being able to make out the traffic which is driving along them. This will be the basis of BRAIN, and as always in science, when the technology allows us to see something new, we often find surprises”. 


“The academic study of sex is one of the most multidisciplinary fields which I know


As a Spanish scientist who has lived in other surroundings, such as the United States, what do we have to learn from them?

“The firm conviction that science is an economic and social driver. In the academic environment in Spain this is already so, but here it seems to be difficult to move out from there. They (the Americans) have made a clear choice for excellence and for transfer of knowledge from pure to applied science. We need to generate far more social and economic value with science, not only academic value.”


Many people say that we have experienced one of the epochs of maximum brain drain from Spain. What is your opinion about this?

I am, frankly, more worried about whether good brains come to Spain or not. It hardly matters where they come from, but it is true that there has been something of a paradox in the investment which Spain has made in its home-grown talent, even funding young scientists to spend time in foreign institutes, only to lose them. This is ridiculous. My ex-partner had all her studies paid for, including her time in the United States, only to be recruited by Germany when she reached her stage of maximum productivity. This is absurd”.


What do you think of the “100Xciencia” forum?

“I am enthusiastic about the programme, and I am really keen to exchange views with the other lecturers. I think that it could be very useful, and I am looking forward very much to participate”.


As a specialist in outreach, what would you advise to those who are starting out in this field, some key point?

“They should identify and make the best of their strong points. If they are very good at something, that they make that the basis of their approach. The number of popularizers is increasing rapidly, and it is not at all easy to find your feet at the present time:”


This year the first edition of the Severo Ochoa awards for excellence comes to an end. What do you think about the award? Should it be continued? If so how?

“Of course, a way of rewarding excellence in science is a necessity. Even though this may not be to the liking of some researchers. In fact there are other steps which should be taken, which so not normally please the scientific community. For example, certain areas should be given very firm priority. It is possible for the US to aspire to be the best at everything, but this is not the case for Spain, and certain strategic areas should be reinforced, a policy which should be clear and publicly known. The governments have not dared to do this (or maybe they have not been able to). The other change is to be more mission oriented, and not so much curiosity driven. Scientists prefer the second approach, but what really works, as far as social and economic impact is concerned, is the first (and there are plenty of data to prove this). Clearly both are needed, but the scientific culture in Spain -at least in academia- is unbalanced towards a romantic rather than a practical idea of science. Exploring is all very well (and personally I really like it) but it is also necessary to identify major specific objectives. This is maybe not so relevant in education and popularization, but it should really be applied to science policy. It is necessary to define objectives and priorities, and to create incentives so that the more competitive part of the community of scientists is attracted to them”. 


Coordination of interviews: Verónica Martín


Contact: info@100xciencia.com       Phone: +34 922605336; +34 660507549
100xCIENCIA Communicating Frontier Science. La Palma (Canary Islands, Spain), October 2015
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