The “casting” of Spanish Science


The best Spanish science on the catwalk

By Mónica G. Salomone


This has been a “summit” of science communication in Spain. On one side of the table those in charge of the twenty best scientific research centres in the country, on the other journalists and popularizers from the main communications media both in Spain and abroad. This is something new. It’s the first time that Spanish science competes as a team to win a place in the collective conscience of society, and to act in consequence. Science wants to come out, to be seen, and loved by the rest of society and so has decided to parade, dressed in its best, in front of those who can tell the tale. Can Spanish science manage to charm the communicators?

The meeting began with the term used by Kenneth Chang, director of the science section of the New York Times, to explain why scientists really ought to have it easy: amazing. It’s not at all true that people are not interested in science. Science astonishes the general public: the news about Mars and Pluto collapsed the websites of the best newspapers, and particles as far away from everyday life as neutrinos and the Higgs boson show over and over again their ability to become media hits.

So the parade began. The astrophysicists and particle physicists talked to us about the very distant, the unknown, things we can scarcely imagine, the most basic ingredients from which we are made, the hidden reality.

Rafael Rebolo (IAC) is essentially a seeker: with some of the best telescopes in the world, with instruments of enormous sensitivity, he and his colleagues look for planets, seek to understand how the stars and the galaxies work, looks for the footprint left on space and time by the Big Bang itself. And straight away, very early on in this meeting, one of the biggest puzzles in modern science raised its head: dark energy. “The types of energy we know on Earth are not exclusive “ said Rebolo.

Luis Torner (ICFO) takes good care of his Icfonians so that they can do practically anything with light: cut, paste, cool down, heat up, diagnose, and cure. And, in addition, they aim to get the quantum physics of Star Trek into form which we can finally use.

Luis Ibáñez (IFT) told us -and expected us to believe him- that the universe could disappear from one moment to the next. He gave us something to think about on Monday mornings when we travel on the underground, or are in a traffic jam…Is it safe to fall into a black hole? Certainly, the numerous follows of the YouTube channel of the Institute of Theoretical Physics prove that there are many non-scientists who worry about these questions.

Manel Martínez (IFAE) wanted to find out “what happens when the laws of the universe are ‘in tension’”. This means participating in the discovery of the hundreds of gamma-ray bursts, the most powerful explosions ever detected, or to investigate more deeply the properties of neutrinos, those particles which at every moment literally pass through our bodies with no mercy.  And in practical terms this means that last Friday those at the meeting were to welcome the brand new shining Nobel Laureate in Physics who had already planned to come to the inauguration of a telescope at the Roque de Los Muchachos Observatory, La Palma, in which the IFAE is a participant.

Juan José Hernández, (IFIC) showed us his most childlike facet by trying to break a toy which has cost physicists a great deal of time and effort to build: the Standard Model. Physicists could sit back and enjoy their success, because at the moment the standard model “works perfectly”. But they can’t do that. They are sure that there is something further “out there” partly because of the annoying “dark side”, dark matter and dark energy, which stubbornly keep appearing while we don’t know what they are, and which we need to unmask at all costs.

The unexplored jungle

The next to parade the catwalk represented, or at least should have represented, a juicy challenge for journalists and popularizers. Mathematics is an almost virgin territory, and for that reason presents an inviting challenge, an unexplored jungle where rich and tasty stories are hiding. However, to reach them we have to brave the mortal threats of an army of incomprehensible terms which can kill our interest in a story in the wink of an eye.

Manuel de León told us about the long-time ambition to finally bring a Fields medal to Spain. Is this dream any nearer to being a reality? The director of the ICMAT also told of their work trying to open pathways through the jungle of stories waiting to be discovered: its mathematicians are the first in Spain who are training to be able to tell about their work to non-mathematicians: to apply one of “Chang’s laws” of science communication which we will talk about later “Less precision means greater clarity”.

BCAM admitted that they have a rather less difficult task, because they are experts in finding the quickest way between the completely useless and the totally indispensable. At their centre, where the objective is to develop mathematical applications for solving society’s problems, they have found solutions to problems as diverse as managing in the “cloud” a report on marathon runners, to optimizing the methods for cleaning urban dust-carts.

Knowledge for problem solving

But perhaps the prize for solving the most important problems must be given to the chemists. In the ITQ they want to understand and control what is happening in reactions between atoms and molecules to generate knowledge, but also to contribute (among other things) to sustainability via the more efficient use of energy.

And so we were told that, for example “The greatest satisfaction” in the professional life of Avelino Corma has been to see a complete factory for fuel built according to one of his techniques, and with entirely Spanish technology.

Miquel Pericàs was no less ambitious: he wants to copy the plants, those amazing green creatures which, as far as we know, without having any organ similar to that of which we ourselves feel proud (a brain) use light to make something that even the Icfonians can’t: food. In the ICQ they are investigating artificial photosynthesis. Because, as Pericàs reminded us, the low price of petroleum now does not diminish the certainty that we are going to use all of it.

What they do in the ICN2 is also a matter of controlling atoms and molecules, but in this case it involves giving these elements of matter what nowadays we call “a personalized treatment”. The nanoscience in the ICN2 tackles social challenges, and these include a particularly complicated challenge: education. Pedro Gómez Romero insisted that one of the priorities of his research centre is to “open the doors to the educational community”. And he reminded us that “To spread effectively an understanding of science you have to enjoy doing it”.

The future of machines, and welfare

Mateo Valero (BSC) introduced us to the scientist’s best friend in the XXI century: supercomputation. Supercomputers have evolved at breakneck speed and without them it would be impossible to extract the information hidden in the quantity of data delivered by modern science. A measurement of the speed of growth in this field: “Twenty years ago a present-day smartphone would have been the most rapid supercomputer:”

Teresa García Milà (Barcelona GSE), the only representative of the social sciences, said that she didn’t have anything to present with the level of excitement of her colleagues. But this didn’t make her less ambitious. Economics, she claimed, does help us to learn from the crisis, so that the coming economic debacles “which will certainly come” would find us “better prepared”.

With the human element already presented, the biomedical centres strutted onto the catwalk. Vicente Andrés and Borja Ibáñez (CNIC) highlighted the need for researchers and cardiologists to work together to help patients. And they set out one of their main objectives: to cure the disease before it appears. With their programme SI designed to promote healthy habits in schools with respect to cardiovascular illness, they aim to improve the future for tens of thousands of children.

Joaquín Pastor (CNIO) centred his talk on the programme of experimental therapy of his centre, pioneer and still unique in Spain in bringing basic research to Big Pharma. "Many programmes [in cancer research] stay there, in research, but we want to go further, to help our friends, our families, to help all people with cancer," said Joaquin Pastor.

Josep Samitier (IBEC) stressed the need for interdisciplinarity. In his centre, physicists and molecular biologists work together to tackle, among other things, ageing, with all the strategies possible, from regenerative medicine to genomics. 

Joan Guinovart strode onto the scene rhythmically, although we could not have imagined how literally true this would be. While he arranged his notes he sang, as if he didn’t really want to give the talk “Barcelona IRB, Barcelona IRB…..” “It’s a trick!” some of us must have thought. Manipulating the masses shouldn’t be used for this! Catchy music, rhythm…Isn’t this supposed to be a conference about communicating science? But the video which his centre has presented has become a total success. Improvisation? Just the contrary. More than a year of work so that experts in communication can distil powerful messages “We will cure Alzheimer, we will improve your life…”  

Michela Bertero (CRG) explained how they are carrying out research to understand how cells in different organs can be different even though the genome is the same. What makes some genes pause in their work while others don’t? One way to find this out is by sequencing the exomes of 30 different tissues. Bartero also drew our attention to a very obvious problem “ you must have realized that in this conference there is a lack of women at high level in Spanish science, in spite of the fact that in some areas we are a majority at junior levels.” The CRG has a programme to correct this deficit.

Juan Lerma (IN) centred his contribution on the organ which makes us what we are. In his institute they study the 80,000,000,000 neurons which allow us to “compose symphonies and ask whether we are alone in the universe.” He reminded us that “problems of our brain give rise to 768,000 million euros in costs, more than cardiovascular diseases and cancer together”. To understand the brain “is urgent”.

Juan Jose Negro (EBD) highlighted the value of “the biggest natural laboratory in Europe, 7,000 hectares, and if we take the whole park (of Doñana) into consideration we have 100,000 hectares of nature available to the international scientific community”.

A lot in common

The catwalk had variety, but many common messages: excellence, frontier, internationalization, generation of knowledge. Science alone, science itself, science which is not innovation, as Malén Ruiz de Elvira and Avelino Corma reminded us, but it does lead to technology, and feeds a close relation with industry and the productive part of the economy. It can generate patents which are used.

The reason for the 'Summit'

The ‘summit’ was useful in bringing out some of the main problems for science. The lack of funding was of course one complaint, but not half as strong as the lament about excessive bureaucracy. “At this moment I am less concerned that they raise our budget by 5% that that they let me work as I wish with the budget I have” said Rebolo. Another relevant declaration, by Luís Ibañez: “Spanish science wastes large quantities of money” (due to its management). Or the following statement by Teresa García Milà: “They mistrust the scientists, and treat us as presumably criminal”.

Why does this problem arise? From the ignorance and lack of interest of the political class. From “politicians arebumpkins” by Joan Guinovart, to “we need science to carry more weight in society” by Luis Ibáñez, there was complete unity in the wish that society should understand that without science there is no future.

"We need you"

Then, the first contact point between the scientists and the communicators came. “We need you” to increase the culture of science within society, so that our leaders can notice that science really does count, science really is important.

How did the communicators answer? First they offered help. Kenneth Chang suggested three keys of success to the scientists for when they emerge socially. The first: simplify your message. The reader will retain at most three ideas, probably only one. Next you will need to sacrifice detail, to gain clarity and so gain efficiency with your message. And finally, look for the “big picture”, widen your focus so that it takes in matters which interest everybody, not just the scientists.

Patricia Fernández de Lis (El Pais/Materia) and Pampa García Molina (SINC, FECYT) agreed with this, and pointed out the need to address and attract everyone, those who know about science and those who don’t, because those travelling on the underground “can stop reading you in a microsecond”.

And the two of them added a new element: the distance of the journalists from their source, the scientist “We are journalists, not translators” said Patricia. “There is an idea that science is harmless, that everything in it is good…and it is not like that, as with any human activity. It is the job of the journalists to tell the whole story”.

In this point there are some problems, and also contradictions. On the one hand, as Pablo Jáuregui said, it is true that interest in science is increasing: there are four new programmes about science on the television, the social networks are buzzing with stories about science. But… And the journalism? Where is the analysis? Noemí Gómez of the EFE news agency, and Rosa Tristán, a freelance science journalist, were worried about too great a tendency to sell science purely as entertainment. Along the same lines the journalist Michele Catanzaro, and Antonio Calvo Roy, president of the Spanish Association for Science Communication (AECC) warned about the increasing evident lack of specialized journalists, capable of working on the time scales and with the resources available to perform critical journalism, which is “good for society and good for science” said Catanzaro.

Was this ‘casting’ a success? Yes and no. The journalists watched, listened, and chose their themes. But they also aimed a message at the scientists “you have still to improve”. But after all this was only the first ‘summit’. The intention of science to want to come out of hiding is, in any case, good news.





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100xCIENCIA Communicating Frontier Science. La Palma (Canary Islands, Spain), October 2015
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