Monday, February 11, 2008

“Science should help creating a more sceptic society”

I completely agree with the above sentence, one of the things Miguel Beato told me during an interview I did to him. If people understood the nature of science, of the scientific method, that nothing is ever set on stone but that to do research means to question everything that you thought you knew, that you can perhaps prove that something is wrong, but never, fully, that it is right. Then we would have far less problems with the overstatements of the media.

Here is a transcription of my interview to Miguel Beato, director of the CRG, which appeared in the PRBB journal ellipse:


Miguel Beato is one of the most internationally acclaimed researchers on the mechanisms of hormonal action, gene expression and breast and endometrial cancer. He studied Medicine at the Universitat de Barcelona in 1962. At a time where it was unusual to study abroad being so young, he left to Germany to do his PhD. There he lived and worked most of his life, until he came back to his country of origin nearly 10 years ago. A painting and photography lover, this self-taught scientist has helped to the creation of three research institutes: one in Germany, one in Seville, and the last one, of which he is currently the director, within the context of the PRBB in Barcelona: the CRG.

How did you become interested in science?
It runs in the family. My father was a gynaecologist, but also because due to the civil war he was not able to be a scientist, which was his real passion and the one he always tried to instil into me…

And you followed his steps…
Yes, I studied gynaecology and obstetrics, and I even worked in the Clinic he had in Burgos. Actually, in the two years I worked there I participated in about 500 labours! It was good fun, and I would have loved to be a male midwife. And it was an adventure, to get to the isolated villages sometimes I had to go by horse or donkey…

Why did you then decide to leave the practice of medicine?
I liked to dedicate time to my patients, but it was impossible, I had a minute and a half for each of them! So, I decided to go into a laboratory to do pathological anatomy, first in Madrid and then in Germany, where I did my PhD.

Why in Germany?
It was also due to a family tradition. My father did his PhD there, and met my mum there….

And from there, you moved to the US…
In the 70’s I went to Columbia, New York, where I stayed for 3 years, until I got an offer in Germany and I went back. This time I stayed there for nearly 30 years.

Why did you finally leave Germany?
After the German reunification there was a strong economic crisis. So I started looking for other things, ideally in a place with more light…

Such as Barcelona…
Well, first I created an institute in Seville and I also started other initiatives, but the most interesting thing was when Jordi Camí invited me to help them build the human biology faculty at the UPF. I thought it was a fantastic thing they were doing, it was an unsuspected project: a university that recruited internationally, not by the typical public official exams but instead by the objective selection of good candidates, etc. After this Andreu Mas-Colell, who was at the time the University Councilor, came with the idea of creating a basic research centre with a big critical mass next to the university. That was precisely what I wanted, so we created the CRG, which has since been an unforeseen chain of successes.

Which has been the best moment of your career?
The day I decided to come back to Barcelona.

What do you think of research in Spain and Catalonia compared with other countries?
Catalonia is better positioned than Madrid, despite its smaller critical mass, but the whole of Spain is in a quite bad shape, because most of the science is done by civil servants, and this way it cannot work. But I do believe that we are at an expansion point that, if all goes well, will help to put us in the place we belong to. We must stop consuming from the others and start producing knowledge ourselves. The culture of the 21st century is science. And society must advance along with science, so we scientists have the moral obligation of doing good science communication to the public.

What is the best thing about science?
The search for the truth. The most important thing that scientists can offer to society is their respect for the truth, the passion of the scientist who, when realising that he or she was wrong, is glad and says “now I am wiser”. The scientific method is what is important in science, that people learn to have an sceptical attitude towards reality.

No comments: