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Pere Estupinyà: “In Latin America There Is a Growing Interest in Science and Innovation”

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I was fortunate to meet Pere Estupinyà in person few years ago. I was always attracted by science outreach, and Pere was and remains a leader in a country where science has never been popular. He very kindly agreed to meet me, a postdoctoral researcher who was considering quitting research and following his steps. We met at a bar on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, an ideal ecosystem for his studies in the field of sex. His professional advice was very wise. “It’s hard living off science outreach”, says the most successful scientific communicator in Spain and Latin America, chemist, biochemist, Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT, editor of ‘Redes’ at TVE, consultant to the Organization of American States and the Inter-American Development Bank, author of El ladrón de cerebros (Debate, 2010), Rascar donde no pica (EnDebate, 2012) and S = EX2, la ciencia del sexo (Debate, 2013). Luckily for those who follow him, his worth and passion have made him stand out in this difficult ecological niche. In our most recent contact I proposed him an interview on science and outreach.

Throughout my scientific career I kept filling up a folder with papers that interested me but were not related to my field of study and I never found the time to read them. You quit a doctorate in genetics and started a career in science outreach. Did you do it for that reason, to read that huge folder full of papers that are beyond the small area of ​​each investigator?

Yes. In my blog’s bio I describe myself as an “omnivore that communicates science as an excuse to learn it.” My main motivation was always a huge personal interest in the developments that science is constantly offering us. When I was an undergraduate, I already was reading books that were not part of the curriculum, and reflecting with colleagues on issues of scientific thought. Actually, I think it was a very conventional case. Over time I have met many researchers who remind me of myself at the time. Perhaps the difference is that I jumped in at a time when scientific communication was a little fuzzy, and I had the “luck” to start working professionally with Eduard Punset in “Redes”.

Is there an explosion of interest in science or was it always there and there was a lack of offer? Is the Internet better than TV to disseminate science?

There is a surge of interest. Now there is certainly more interest than before, and the Internet has contributed much to it. It is also associated with development. I visit Latin America very frequently, where there is a clear growing interest in science and innovation among the general public, governments and intellectual communities.

I imagine that by “Internet vs TV” format you mean “writing vs audiovisual”, as many people “watch TV” on Youtube. Overall, internet/writing is more efficient to disseminate science, but TV allows you to reach other audiences, and tell different stories. Each topic demands a different format. I think it is essential to have science on TV.

During my first stay in a US laboratory I was surprised by the maturity of students and the number of interesting questions they asked in group meetings. This in Spain was rare to see. Do you think there is a more inquisitive culture in English-speaking countries?

It depends on what. But among students, no doubt. They are much more prone to speak in public, to raise their hand in class, or to try to stand out. In science journalism, the same is true: they have a more critical perspective. Among us, it still prevails an attitude of praise towards science, without questioning it enough.

How do you see the present and the future of science in Spain?

There are research centers that work very well and compete internationally. There are others that, truth be told, do very little. Some cleaning should be done, but this is politically incorrect. I do not know… Sometimes I get the feeling that Spain is in a weird middle ground. It is between the top countries that manage to be ahead and take economic advantage of its leadership and the countries that seem to assume that they will never be able to compete, and thus engage without hesitation in a science focused on very local issues that directly benefit the population. Lately I’m seeing many examples in Latin America, and I find it fascinating. “We are not interested in black holes,” a Peruvian leader told me, transmitting that rocket science is for others, and they want science to help them solve specific problems of agriculture, health, proprietary technology, to generate economic value, to study their societies and natural environment … In this sense, it seems more innovative and valuable. Maybe they will not publish papers in journals of great academic impact, but the social impact of science may be longer. In Spain, each school/college should define itself: either you are trying to be a top institution worldwide, or your study focuses on local circumstances. For being in the middle is basically useless.

What do you read to keep abreast of what is happening in the world of science?

Science and Nature are required. No papers itself, but news, features, comments … then obviously what is coming by social networks. The advantage is that when something is known, you find out for sure.

Who, in your opinion, the best science communicator in the world?

I do not have a favorite.

What science book can you recommend to us?

My generic answer to this is “A Short History of Nearly Everything“.

How do you decide the topics to address in your blog or in your books? Is it current issues, personal interest, issues that you think may interest the general public, or that you think they should know?

All these factors must be met. If I am not interested, I do not write about it. If I believe the public will not be interested, I do not write about it either. Neither if it is old and it has been explained a thousand times. I am always discarding and looking for originality. Sometimes I say that science communication is more art than science.

You defend adapting scientific language to the reader´s level so as not to be too dry, and it is working for you. You believe that intuition will complete those parts the reader does not fully understand and that in any case, if they really want, they will seek more information on the subject, so you will have achieved your goal as a communicator. Have you been criticized for this?

What matters is not what you say but what the reader understands. It is not hard for me to get rid of scientific subtleties, if that makes it easier for the reader to understand the concept that you want to convey. I do not understand it otherwise, and I have not received any criticism for it. Science is not the property of scientists. They are not the ones to dictate right and wrong language.

What you mention about seeking more information: from the communicator´s point of view, it is positive to stimulate the audience and leave them halfway.

11830074_1193840450629936_1747500810_nYou have recently written the book S = EX2. La ciencia del sexo. I remember a study on college sex you wrote about in your blog. The survey revealed that, contrary to students’ expectations about college sex life -many sexual encounters with different people- most developed a stable relationship after the second or third sexual partner. They had not taken oxytocin into account, the so-called love hormone, responsible for the feeling of attachment, urging them to repeat. Does the sexual revolution fail due to biology?

No. At least in most modern societies, casual sex is increasingly common, and women feel more liberated to do whatever they please without anyone judging them. Oxytocin plays a role, but I have also said many times that, in love, memory is more important than hormones. When someone “loves” someone, it does not love because of a shot of oxytocin (or yes, but fleetingly), but because of memories of everything they lived together and the future projections. Culture influences sexual behavior more than biology does. Humans have strong determining factors to be promiscuous, but also to form couples. Some even think that both are not mutually exclusive.

Social networks are a showcase where people only display their best side, an image of success. Behind them, the reality is often a mundane life. Society, the media, the huge amount of positive psychology books; everything seems to push us to believe we should live in permanently ecstatic happiness, and if not, we are failing. Is this a position that does not understand the biology of the brain? Do we live under the tyranny of happiness?

Hmm, yes; it could be. Emotions, to work as a guide, should forcibly switch states. A compass that always marked the north would be useless. It is normal to have ups and downs. But there is also nothing wrong with trying to maximize happiness.

In his book The blank Slate Steven Pinker collects studies dismantling the theory, widespread in the second half of the twentieth century, that our brain is born “empty” and that is the environment what determines the personality and abilities of the individual. Pinker argues that we come with a program and that the malleability of the brain is limited. For him, that is the biggest mistake of most academic left, the denial of human nature. How far do you think the evolutionary explanation of behavior can go?

Evolutionary psychology reminds me sometimes of pseudoscience: hypothesis that sound good but have no experimental data to support them. I agree with Pinker and I assume that we are born with some behavioral conditions that mark at the genetic level who will be more adventurous, calm, or aggressive. But the atmosphere modulates everything. I believe that interpreting adult behavior in terms of evolutionary past is a fallacy, a story that generally has little science. Moreover, epigenetics and neuronal plasticity have shattered genetic determinism. In the eternal “nature vs nurture” debate, it is usually said the score is 50:50. I think in adults in developed societies it is closer to 20:80 in favor of the environment. And this is good.

Capitalism has enjoyed overwhelming success because it adapts very well to the biology of Homo sapiens,  very prone to accumulate things, perhaps for self-preservation rather than greed. The consumer society generates a permanent desire that is never sated; as much as we buy stuff, there will always come up a new article we will think we need. Moreover, behavioral studies applied to marketing try to take advantage of the buyer´s psychology, and technology allows us to know personal patterns of consumption better than ever. In the end, do we know that “less is more”, but our instinct leads us to ignore that? Should there be a debate about the limits of marketing?

It’s posible. But it really has not changed much. Last week I had dinner with a McKinsey consultant whose function is to do market research for brands who look for their niche markets. I asked what tools they used, and it is very conventional: surveys and such. Behavioral economics and neuromarketing do not seem to be able to get out of the academic environment. Okay; behavioral economics does… maybe a little.

An excess of choice in life can become paralyzing rather than liberating. Are you a maximizer or a satisfier?

I thought I was a maximizer, but when I did the test, which includes many facets of behavior, I saw that in many aspects of my life I’m pretty much a satisfier. Although half I came out as slightly maximizer, I realized I do not mind that much about many things.

Hjernevask is a Norwegian documentary on the nature vs. nurture debate that talks about the biological basis of the differences between people. It led to an unprecedented debate in the Norwegian society, and perhaps influenced in the closing of the Nordic Gender Institute, as its researchers did not come out very well in the interviews with Harald Eia. Most of these scholars refused to accept even the possibility of a biological explanation for the differences between people. Is this attitude explained by the fear of opening the door to uncomfortable truths? Shouldn´t it be possible to study any subject, without taboos?

I agree. There is fear of uncomfortable realities. Science also has many taboos. That is why the point of view of sociologists of science and STS (science, technology and society) studies academics is so interesting, because it opens debates and reflections that scientists engrossed in the laboratory do not provide.

Do you think there are still many bridges to build between the sciences and the humanities? Is the third culture a solution?

I think they are creating more bridges than ever, there is much mutual interest, and there is still room for more connections. The third culture is undoubtedly the future of the relationship between science and humanities.

Nature, Science and Cell are criticized for its restrictive publication policy, its closed access and a preference by fashionable or striking subjects. This policy has an impact on the scientific community: how to approach research topics, time constraints, the tyranny of impact factors … Sometimes these publications are not reproducible by other researchers, and in some cases it has been demonstrated the existence of fraud and falsification of data. The Nobel Prize Randy Schekman appealed to stop publishing in these three journals. What do you think of this? Is open access the solution?

I do not think that open access is the solution to the problems you mention. In fact, in one study analyzing scientific fraud showed that it was huge in open access journals. I think a lot of mediocrity is being published. I know that is how science works, and how they evaluate you when looking for a position, etc. But you see … When I read Nature or Science, the truth is that I like them, and I would not like them to lose quality. Yes, I feel that the more open access, the better, but this is an important issue that deserves serious debate.

In your book El ladrón de cerebros you comment on the possibilities of technology to improve the cognitive abilities of sick people, and also to increase the capacity of “normal” people, and how normality will increasingly be a fuzzy concept. Ray Kurzweil talks about the technological singularity, when the machines reach a superhuman intelligence with the ability to lead technological and social changes that we can not even comprehend. He places such an event around 2030, and also predicts the emergence of nanorobots that will repair damaged arteries, the cloning of organs from the patient’s own stem cells, and ultimately the unlimited extension of life. All this is usually perceived as very distant or impossible, and Kurzweil attributed it to our linear perception of technological change, while he argued in his book The Singularity Is Near that progress is actually exponential. Do you think we are close to this? What are the ethical boundaries?

Kurzweil is one of the smartest people I’ve ever met, but sometimes he uses his intelligence to sell himself. Yes, we will lengthen life (and we are doing it), we will have nanorobots in our blood, clone organs … but we will not download our consciousness into a computer, or brake the molecular aging of our body. Look at Aubrey de Grey, who became famous for raising a molecular antiaging that made biological sense. Has he published anything in the last 7 or 8 years? Any advance? Nothing. I asked him, and everything continues in a theoretical framework. And the same happens with many ideas of singularity. I love them, but they’re uncritical, optimistic people that choose to ignore the physical, technological and ethical limitations of many of the ideas proposed. They are very good, and certainly a great reference. But you should read or listen to them with caution.

Do you think that technology will prevent environmental collapse and the material and energy shortages?

Yeah. I think so (my singularian side 😉).