Friday, 19 April 2024

What we need to innovate more.
Is it an investment issue?

More investment is necessary, but it does not suffice to bring about the changes our science and innovation system needs. This investment needs to be accompanied by a strategy that is capable of prioritizing projects and developing pending aspects of our system.
For example, those that are related to the scientific career of researchers or the ability to foster public-private ventures. To innovate more, it is necessary to invest in education, innovation, cultural shifts and process changes.
In addition to rebuilding our technical-scientific capabilities, which were severely hit by a series of cutbacks, we need to make a deep analysis of the weaknesses shown in these three realms: education, health and industry.
Weaknesses that always share in common an underinvestment in human and technological resources, strategy, data, knowledge... All of these assets make up the intangible economy. Had we historically focused on those intangible assets, as leading economies do, public health and education professionals would have had more tools and more skills to address the current crisis; our industries would have been able to respond faster and more efficiently to the colossal challenges that we have had to face.
More investment is necessary, but it does not suffice to bring about the changes our science and innovation system needs"
This lesson should be ever present when managing the European funds. The major digital and environmental transitions we are experiencing need to be accompanied by a transition in investment flows, heading toward a more intangible economy. Otherwise, they will not be viable, and at the very least, inefficient, because infrastructures, equipment and other material goods transform nothing on their own.
The Space sector is one of the most intensive in this regard. Do you believe that the spanish society is aware of its value?
Not enough. Space is a strategic sector that, at the moment, is highly regarded when it comes to the sovereignty of nations.
Spain, as a founding partner of the European Space Agency (ESA), is becoming increasingly more involved in ESA missions that are, unquestionably, having an impact on the scientific and technological development of Spain; however, even though we have significant infrastructure in tracking stations, R&D facilities and centers, we still do not give it the importance it requires, a Strategy and a Space Law, though

I am aware that the New Space trend is growing in Spain, with companies having key roles in important missions that, through their contributions, complete the major capabilities that the Spanish space industry has developed during the last few decades.

Cristina Garmendia

This new approach, in line with global trends, is bestowing the country with design, manufacturing and launch to orbit capabilities for satellites and instruments, state of the art resources and assets, and putting Spain in a position of leadership in the European and global arena.

I would also like to highlight that these new capabilities are fostering a territorial capillarity that adds value to the development of the different regions related to this cutting- edge technology, offering opportunities to local/ regional talent, thereby minimizing the well- known issue of internal migration to traditional industrial centers.
You started your career as a researcher and worked in a fair amount of companies before establishing your own biotechnology company, Genetrix. Is starting your own project in Spain, such as this one, a difficult decision?
Spain has made great strides in the field of company entrepreneurship, and luckily, one of the greatest transformations that is taking place is related to culture.
I believe there is an increasingly positive social sentiment about the need for more and better companies to underpin our welfare state. It is true that, two decades ago, starting an enterprise in Spain was an act of heroism. We are still scientific leaders but, in addition, throughout these years we have built up infrastructures around science and technology parks; adequate public policy devices have been developed, we have specialized financial resources coming in from public and private risk capitals and we have scientific and managerial talent.
Now, the challenge is being steadfast in strengthening our public-private collaboration, showing society that this is the only way to advance fast and do it well, seizing the possibilities technology has to offer and bolstering our human assets.
Not many are aware that you have also founded a microsatellite company, Satlantis Microsats. What drove you to go down that path?
I don’t know if you are born an entrepreneur or if you become one, we are all probably very different. What I can say for certain is that in the face of unique scientific-technological results that I came across, obtained by this wonderful person that is Professor Rafael Guzmán of the University of Florida, it is almost impossible not to put them to the service of society through a business project.
This is how Satlantis was born – a dream that started with a trip to Florida in the year 2012: developing and flying an Earth observation instrument with a unique technology linked to astrophysics. Eight years later, this dream has come true with our first mission with JAXA, the Japanese agency, in May 2020.
Thanks to space biotechnology, human beings will be able to go further in space”
And how do you turn a dream into a real business? With the best team led by the, CEO Juan Tomás Hernani, the strong institutional support of the Government of Spain, the Basque Government and the Vizcaya Regional Government and major long-term investors who, in addition to looking for financial profits, want to boost the industrial capabilities of our country.
Biotechnology will be the key to our being able to engage in interplanetary travels and get to Mars, for example. Which step do we still need to take in order to open that door?
Rather than the key, I would say that thanks to space biotechnology, human beings will be able to go further in space. It is one of the major fields, since it would provide the missions with autonomy and the optimization of certain processes that are now being studied in the laboratories of the International Space Station.
These studies are focused on being able to grow a harvest in space, which guarantees the generation of food and oxygen while absorbing carbon dioxide. Likewise, plants can purify the water from sweat, and plants can offer positive psychological benefits.
In addition, studies are being performed on how the space environment affects our biology at a bone and even molecular level, with results that benefit the field of space medicine. Water, food and oxygen are elements that will ultimately allow humans to travel to other planets, and biotechnology is a fundamental starting point. However, there are many challenges that must be faced before taking the leap.
What is your takeaway from your time in politics as the minister of science and innovation?

I remember my stint in politics fondly, and I am deeply grateful to those who accompanied me in my duties and also those who trusted and supported me.

These were very enriching and intense years where I learned a lot, we proposed initiatives that were greeted with political consensus and are today a solid reality.
One of the pillars of any advanced economy is precisely innovation. Why do you believe that it is not more decidedly supported if its benefits to society are so clear while also being among the most profitable investments?
The pandemic has made us value and dramatically so the importance of scientific knowledge in addressing today’s problems. It has made us sorely aware about the knowledge we do not have and should have generated ten or twenty years ago to prevent many of those same problems and to avoid being so dependent on the knowledge possessed by other countries.
The pandemic has served to get Spanish science to finally obtain the budget increase that it had been demanding for a decade of dereliction. It is paradoxical, but you could say that in Spain, it was the virus that saved science and not science that has saved us from the virus. We are finally at a budgetary turning point that will not suffice if we want to encourage a knowledge-based economy.
We will need new instruments involving public policies that are more flexible and adapted to the needs of the moment, which enable us to compete in such a globalized environment, and Public Research Bodies and Universities that have a regulation that enables them to operate more efficiently and autonomously.
The recovery plan brought forward by the European Union and the Next Generation EU fund the opportunity we were waiting for?
It is, without question, a unique opportunity. Alongside Italy, Spain is the main beneficiary of these funds that are unprecedented in the history of the EU. It is also –despite our perceived feeling of underdevelopment due to the high expectations– the country that is implementing them the fastest and, in fact, the first one to have received the first payment.
Because of the fields that they encompass, they are a great opportunity at three levels. On one hand, to leverage corporate investments in R&D, digitalization and sustainability. And, on the other, to modernize the public government bodies. Both are aspects that are getting stagnated. But I would look at it from a third side: recapitalizing and boosting the R&D system, given that there are also many investments for universities, R&D centers and technology centers, both direct and collaboration with companies.
You have provided advice to the European Commission as a member of the High-Level Group, offering your recommendations for the design of the 9th Framework Program Horizon Europe 2021-2027. What do you think Europe's position should be and how does Spain fit in this plan?
One of the problems we are facing is, to a certain extent, the loss of a shared vision. In this regard, I consider the idea of former Commissioner Moedas, inspired by economist Mariana Mazzucatto, to be quite interesting: the need to define great European innovation missions that succeed in getting the citizens, companies institutions and the scientific system involved.
We are talking about advancing toward carbon-neutral cities, about committing to reducing the impact of cancer or to adapt to climate change. These are causes that can unite most Europeans and, in particular, the younger generations, in addition to more efficiently mobilizing our scientific and technological capabilities.
The pandemic has made us value and dramatically so the importance of scientific knowledge in addressing today’s problems"
Spain has been steadily improving its engagement in research and innovation framework programs for approximately 15 years. I am convinced that it will keep doing so in this new program.
One of the great challenges of the 21st century is fighting climate change. What is the role of technology in putting a stop to the process?
If there is anything that characterizes the Fourth Industrial Revolution, that is the confluence of disciplines that were until now independent, such as physics, biology and computing.
It is highly likely that the technologies of the future are already among us and that what is left to see is how they mesh with each other to develop their full potential to fight not only climate change, but also any possible challenges that arise.
In my opinion, the most interesting thing about the future is not what technology has in store for us, regardless of how far our imagination soars, but rather about what we do with it, the way in which it transforms our lives, our society and our economy. That is the greatest challenge that lies ahead. Succeeding in technology transforming our world for the better, for everyone’s benefit.
Despite of all the efforts made during the last few years, the percentage of women who choose science and technology careers does not reach parity. What must we do to attract them and be able to incorporate that talent?

We live in a society where, despite having achieved advancements, is still culturally sexist, full of biases, and logically, that also affects young women when it is time to choose a career path.

If we educated our boys and girls in equal terms, it would be unnecessary to instill scientific callings in women or others in men, but since this is not the case, or at least not for the most part, it is necessary to take corrective actions, because society cannot afford to do without half of the available talent in any field of knowledge for gender reasons.
When you look back on your career you always remember your mentor, researcher Margarita Salas, whom you work with at the Centro Nacional de Biología Molecular Severo Ochoa. What are the values she instilled in you?
Margarita Salas has been my teacher, my friend, my partner and a role model for me in many respects. I can only say that the impact Margarita has had in my life has been enormous, since I had the privilege of being inspired by her passion for science, her dedication, working skills and her commitment to society.
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