Pedro Miguel Etxenike (Isaba, 1950)
Pedro Miguel Etxenike is currently professor of Physics of Condensed Matter in the University of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU), president of the International Physics Center in San Sebastian, president of the members Board of the scientific investigations centre CIC Nanogune, president of Jakiunde, and vice-president of Innobasque. Before this, he held the posts of Councillor for Education in the Basque Government (1980-1983) and member of the Advisory Board for the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) (2001-2007).
Apart from this, Pedro Miguel Etxenike is a member of the Scientific Council of the BBVA Foundation and of the Trilateral Commission, Advisor for IDOM and Mapfre Norte and Councillor for excellence in Eusko Ikaskuntza.
His academic background includes the following Certificates: PhD in Physical Science. University of Navarra (1972), Philosophical Doctor. University of Cambridge (1976), Doctor of Physical Science. Autonomous University of Barcelona (1977), Doctor of Science. University of Cambridge (1998), Honorary Degree in the University of Valladolid (2000) and the State University of Navarra (2008).
Pedro Miguel Etxenike has been distinguished with a number of prizes and awards, among which the following may be emphasised: corresponding member of the Royal Academy of Sciences and Arts of Barcelona, Euskadi award to Investigation, Gold Medal awarded by the University of the Basque Country, The Prince of Asturias Awards towards scientific and technical investigation, Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Gold Medal awarded by the Royal Spanish Society of Physics and Gold Medal of Gipuzkoa.
Pedro Miguel Etxenike has provided seminars in numerous international centres, given conferences in over a hundred international congresses, directed 24 doctoral theses and published over 300 works in books and magazines.
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Our weekly magazine Euskonews & Media will reach its tenth anniversary in 2008. To mark this event, within a very extensive programme of activities, every month until December we will publish a special interview with an inportant figure in the recent history of our country. It is the best gift we can give the thousands of readers who read our magazine every week.
Pedro Miguel Etxenike is one of the best-known scientists rendered by the Basque Country. Although he has been dedicated to high level investigations from an early age, part of his life has been devoted to the creation of the education system in the Basque Autonomous Community, in the post of Education Councillor for the Basque Government. Pedro Miguel Etxenike dominates the scientific investigation network better than any other person and offers his contributions with work carried out both in the University of the Basque Country and the International Physic Center in San Sebastian, which he himself created.
It seems that you are a fortunate researcher, since I have read your statement that any researcher has to go to where his interests lie. And you work and live in Donostia...
Yes, I did say that on one occasion and it has a double interpretation. On the one hand, it refers to the fact that science is universal, science is worldwide, and if one wants to understand something specific and that something is being developed in a certain place in the world one has to go to that place. You are not going to wait for others to explain it to you when they understand it. By the time they publish it, the development will be far too advanced, so one has to be at the frontier. And frontier between the known and the unknown is always something very tenuous.
And it also refers to the other meaning, and in this sense I am indeed very fortunate, because I can develop my own interests in a place where I also want to live. It is also true that there is a generation in the Basque Country which at the same time as finding a place to work has also created the right conditions to enable them to work in what interests them.
What I mean is that today, many of our people can develop here a first class worldwide research activity. Our predecessors did not manage that, we are the middle generation; we have achieved it but have, at the same time, built a home.
There was a time in our profession when we had to compete with the rest of the world carrying a weight on our backs, so to speak. It was like climbing the Txindoki mountain, but those from Cambridge had no rucksack on their backs, but we did, because as we were climbing we had to get our climbing shoes ready for the ascent. And I think that was expressed very well by Lehendakari Ibarretxe during a speech he made at the Korta Centre, when he acknowledged a large number of people in this country and said that now it is not only about attracting talent but also about retaining, nourishing and pampering the talent that has emerged here.
I get the impression, which I have also perceived from reading about Donostia International Physics Centre (DIPC), that it has been achieved and that the Centre has become the most international...
In these matters it is dangerous to say the most..., firstly because it establishes unnecessary comparisons which can be irritating. But I do think that what is important is that science should be international. The values are international, however scientists are local, and instruments have to be created in order to achieve that internationalisation. DIPC emerges with that objective: internationalisation. The research carried out by eminent groups in several leading fields at the University of the Basque Country was always international. Therefore, DIPC was born to give an instrument to some of those groups, and I do believe that this has been a clear success during the years we have been functioning.
Perhaps because the ground was already prepared for this initiative. It could not have flourished if we had created it when, for example, I was part of the Basque Government in 1980, because the culture broth, the environment, the critical mass, the values, the social support, were different.
I believe the success is due, on the one hand, to the international relations of the leadership and, to the strategic challenge of the institutions, in the sense that they are represented at the highest level on the Board of the DIPC, which means that they do not go into the detail of how things are done, but can judge whether they are done well and give them support. The DIPC runs expediently and without bureaucracies. The UPV-EHU (University of the Basque Country) and other universities are represented at the highest level in the DIPC. The university is essential part of the DIPC, but the DIPC is not part of the university. It is not subject to any form of slow, rigid bureaucratic regulations.
The DIPC is a catalyst for the primary activity of the Department of Materials Physics of the University of the Basque Country and of the Mixed Centre with the Council. It is a very good example of how social innovation, a different way of doing things, can generate high scientific innovation and production.
One of the problems with science and technology is that, for common mortals, they are difficult to gauge. Could you, with a few words, convince us that the correct application of science and technology reflects directly on the development of a society?
We see it every day from the moment we wake up. If someone stopped to think of what he has done throughout the day, we would realise that the majority of those activities would have been much more unpleasant 100 years ago. Starting with the morning shower, cooking breakfast, or taking the aspirin when you have a headache.
Science has reduced the dependence on the natural environment. Hobbes said, only 300 years ago, that life was sordid, cruel and short, except for a privileged minority. The probability of you and I having this conversation at the beginning of the century was very slight, because the chances of your being alive were small and that both of us being alive were even smaller. Live expectancy has doubled; dependence on nature has been reduced. Of course, the thought of an idyllic nature is very beautiful, but those who suffer the effects of a cyclone in Bangladesh do not think that way.
Rousseau said 200 years ago: “Half the children will die before their 14th birthday, this is an immutable figure, do not try to change it”. Science has had, through technology, a humanising effect. It has made the people’s life more human, more pleasant.
Another thing is, that It has at the same time, created another set of problems, because advancing towards the unknown, as Leibnitz said, often itself creates a threat. Iron: sword or hoe; it depends on how you use it. Who would have thought that the infinitesimal calculation that allows the design of equipment for medical diagnosis and computing systems can also be used to guide a missile? This is the problem with the duality of science. Now, what is clear is that science has made life more human. That on the one hand.
In addition, science has answered basic questions which man had asked himself since the time of the Greeks. It is part of natural philosophy. It is an essential part of modern humanism and culture. I believe that most people are convinced of this. It does not mean that everything that is technologically possible is appropriate or healthy. That is the wisdom, though not the knowledge, which is a correct conception of the objectives, and societies must find this path democratically.
The problem is that, sometimes, essential aspects of science are difficult to transmit. For example, a professor of literature can, from the beginning, transmit the contents of a text to his pupils, certainly not with the same sophistication as its author, but with certain beauty. This is, amongst other things, because the pupils have been, during 15, 16 or 18 years, talking, thinking, using the language and dominating or playing with words.
A professor of Physics cannot transmit the beauty of the general theory of relativity. It is not easy for anyone to understand that the structure of the double helix of DNA has the inbuilt mechanism to replicate, that it is the means one generation has to transmit its characteristics to the next one, the secret of life. It is a question of the language. That is why it is important that scientists, those who have really carried out the advances, explain to society what it is they do, why they do it, what it is good for, how it is done. It is all related, it is part of what I would call “science and society”.
It is interesting what you say about the impact of science or technology on social development. It is a fascinating field! Nevertheless, it seems to have very little impact on our young people, who don’t seem to show much interest in technical careers or research...
That is true, and I think it is due to various factors. It seems that, the more developed the society the more the rewards turn towards other fields. For example for many years in Spain what I call the “casino economy” has been praised. The winners were those who made fortunes through speculation. Society recognised these values, probably different from those recognised in Finland. The winner was someone else. If society does not recognise, either socially or financially, those who are pulling the cart it will hardly be attractive. If a younger brother sees that out of his two older brothers, one who studied Molecular Biology is struggling financially working in research while the other, a broker, is flourishing; it is obvious what his point of reference is going to be.
I believe that it has partly to do with social acknowledgement and, what I have already explained, about the language. There are things that can be recognised as attractive from the beginning and science requires a certain amount of time because its language has to be learnt, which is hard. A text from Shakespeare is not enjoyable if you don’t speak English. Learning English can be complicated, but if you persist you will enjoy it at the end. This could be another difficulty. That is why it is so important to deal with the issue of education correctly.
I believe that, when we refer to innovation, technology, development, the education system is at the essential core. Society will be what its education system is, because it is there where knowledge, behaviour and values are transmitted. In the specific case of science it is important that those who dedicate themselves to teaching, at especially high school level, should be well treated financially and socially, and placed under the right conditions to develop their work, because that is the only way they can transmit their enthusiasm and love for what they do, their affection. If they are angry they transmit nothing.
Summarising, there are three factors: social recognition, the difficulty to appreciate something without sufficient training, and the need for the education system to transmit that appreciation, not only of the useful results of science, but also of science as cognitive values. If understanding what is useful is essential for the development of a society, and for social development, it is even more important for society to be conscious of how useful knowledge is.
Both technological and scientific developments have improved our way of life. Can you mention some of the advances that have been key to that change?
Science, in particular physics, has advanced in two directions, which is what people always consider more inspiring, more spectacular.
One is the knowledge of the largest structure, the universe, of where we are going. The other, the smallest, the elemental particles, both of which are related. Someone who wanted to make a poetic statement would say, as Alberto Galindo said, the alpha of the great explosion and the omega of the disintegration of matter, cosmology and elementary particles.
That is what people usually read about when they are interested in physics. When you are having dinner with people who have a life without problems and can spend time thinking about other topics, they bring up the questions of the strings, the big bang, the universe, the dark matter, etc. It is about the largest and the smallest. The want to know about the meaning of 10-35 (ten to the minus thirty five), the strings, Planck’s radius or 1025 (ten to the twenty five), the universe.
The galaxy is 1021 (ten to the twenty one), light takes 8 seconds to reach the moon, 8 minutes to reach the sun from here, and one hundred thousand years to cross our galaxy, which is only one of the many in existence. It is in the magnitude of these facts that people find their beauty and their inspiration. In fact, recently, physicists are the only ones to speak of God. I usually say that, at least here, bishops speak of other things.
Nevertheless, this physics of the largest and the smallest has to be contrasted with the other, that of the science of real nature, of real objects. In English this paradox can be established: “the matter that matters”, playing with the double meaning of the word “matter”, both as a topic and as a substance. That is where man, amoeba and DNA sit. Fundamentally, that is the science that has changed the world and that has changed technology.
The other science is also spoken about. For example, general and restricted relativity, which has made GPS possible, is no small thing. The basic aspects of time and accelerated systems allow the GPS to detect something. Due to the fact that the satellite moves and is placed within a gravitational field different from that of the earth because of its altitude, the satellite would miss its target by ten kilometres in one day if corrections to the clocks were not made. And these are corrections of microseconds. This shows an example of both usefulness and application.
Now, in the core of what is the real nature of normal objects: why do metals exist? Why are there semiconductors, what are molecules like, what is the process of catalysis, what is the structure of the double helix of DNA? I believe there are three words that symbolise these three achievements: atom, gene and bit.
The great conceptual revolution of the XX century is Quantum Physics, which allows the understanding of matter, of molecules, of the structure of the DNA double helix, etc. There are lasers, nuclear magnetic resonance, medical diagnostics, new drugs, the genome, energy, everything. Physics of condensed matter is, simply, one the greatest contributions.
Atom, matter, gene, live, bit, complexity, could summarise the extraordinary advances of the XX century, and quantum physics, which makes it all possible, is one of the greatest scientific-technological achievements of the XX century.
It is in effect true that 100 years ago we could not have had this conversation because we would not have reached the age we are now. Nevertheless, I have sometimes read the terrifying statement that man could live 1000 years in the not too distant future.
I don’t know about that. You would have to ask someone else. We would have to consider the conditions. In any case, there are some organisms that never die. Modern science could probably manage to lengthen life. Some serious research has been conducted and the results published in the Science and Nature magazines. These publications are great, not because of their media influence, but because of the quality controls they apply to the material they publish. There have been articles on how to lengthen life in mice or flies for instance. By changing the conditions of life, and if this could be extrapolated to the human race, it is said that man could live up to 500 years.
The conditions which, according to that research, would allow life to be longer, are three and not very pleasant. I certainly wouldn’t want them for myself. The first is to be very cold, the second to be very hungry, and the third is not just sexual abstinence, but the complete removal of the gonads. In any case, it is very possible that those who read this would not be sure whether life would be longer, but it would undoubtedly feel very long.
Lengthening life is the aspiration of many people. I have always liked the following two quotations very much. One is by Benjamin Franklin: “Don’t worry about posterity because it is not going to do anything for you”. The other is by Woody Allen, “I do want to pass into posterity, but not because of my actions as I am told, but simply by not dying”.
If the scientist can see clearly what is happening, does he also have the ability to see what there is to come?
I have to say, first of all, that the scientist never sees clearly what is happening, because the scientist, the researcher, is on the borderline between the known and the unknown, and that is very confusing. Migdal says: “Each advance in research arises from understanding”. But the understanding, in turn, arises from the advancement itself; there is an intrinsic contradiction. Scientific advance consists of overcoming that contradiction.
Thus, I repeat, the scientist does not see clearly; the advances are blurred, steps into the unknown, different ways of asking questions and, sometimes, the moment of discovery does suddenly appear when somebody hits something in the confusion of the frontier. That is the difference between a researcher and a wise man, a “scholar”. A scholar wants to investigate in order to understand, he wants to understand, he is wise. But a researcher wants to understand in order to discover, he is an explorer.
It is true that it sometimes happens, what I usually describe in my talks as the moment of discovery. When Watson and Crick realised that the secret of life is in the structure of the double helix of DNA, in the configuration of the sequence of the four nucleotides connected to its spine (the alphabet of life). That is the magical moment, the moment of discovery.
All researchers have felt it, though most of them not as profoundly as in that case. Or as when Einstein saw relativity generalised. But they have felt it at a given moment and that is why it is difficult to abandon research, because it is about magical moments, no matter how small.
That idea of the researcher as someone who sees things clearly is false. It is the opposite. Researchers nearly always move in a borderline where things are not clear. If they were seen clearly research would not be so interesting.
Don’t tell me that he is more confused than those of us, who are not researchers, when we look into the future...!
It depends on how you define confused, because there can be no greater confusion than that created by those who pontificate their truths in the media every day, can there? But seriously, if a well educated person, intelligent, with vision, a great researcher, tells you that something is possible... it’s almost sure that he is right. If he tells you that something is not possible, it’s almost sure that he is wrong.
There are extensive examples in the history of science. The president of the Office of Patents of North America, dazzled by the successes of traditional Physics at the end of the XIX century, stated that everything that can be invented had already been invented. He said this two or three years before the theory of Quantum Physics and Relativity emerged, which would transform science in the XX century and would lead to an endless number of inventions, even today.
The iphone today has 200 high technology patents; the fact that you can be looking at a photograph and the image rotates is not trivial. That you can be connected to your home from the United States in one second was something unthinkable; my grandfather waited 30 days to ring his relatives in California, and everyone waited for the news of a guy from Puerto Rico. Now, from a mountain in Baztan, that man, my grandfather, the aitaxi, what would he have thought of picking up one of these gadgets and talking to his grandson? He couldn’t have understood it...
Continuing with the examples, Watson, the president of IBM, thought 50 years ago that there would only be a market in the world for maybe 5 computers. The president of Digital, in 1977, which is not very far back, did not see a reason why anyone would want a personal computer at home. Today, if you take the personal computer away from 20% of the population you would cause them to suffer a depression. Bill Gates said, in 1981, that 640 KB should be enough for anyone. Mikelson preached that all laws of Physics were already known. Marshall Foch said that airplanes were toys but had no military strategic value.
Making predictions...! Niels Bohr, the great Danish physicist, made a very good comment saying “Predictions should never be made, especially about the future”. And we could add another brilliant phrase of Groucho Marx, when he commented that “The future is no longer what it was”.
What are the qualities of a good scientist?
I often give a talk entitled “Advice to a young scientist” and of course there are qualities that characterise scientists, but “the scientist” does not exist. My opinion differs from that of some colleagues in this, because I do not believe that the typical “scientist” exists. There are scientists, in the same way that when a palace or any architectural work is constructed there is an architect, who designs it, has the first vision, and finishes it off; there are scientists who want to say the first word about a topic, others want to have the last word, but both types are equally eminent. One will write the first paper on the topic and others the last review. There are scientists who are like craftsmen, others who are more like collectors and all contribute to build the edifice of science because science is progress, it is collective work.
I often think of the phrase by Andre Gide: “All the waves in the sea owe the beauty of their profile to the retreat of the ones that preceded them”. Centuries before, Newton referring to others before him, had also said something similar: “If I have been able to see so far ahead, it is because I have leant on the backs of previous giants”.
Science is progress because everything forms the links of a chain, each in a different way. Therefore, there are no qualities that uniquely define scientists. Some have certain qualities, others have different ones. Some are imaginative, others not so much. Now, in my opinion, the most important quality in a scientist is tenacity, the will to solve problems. If you love what you do and have willpower, you will always solve any problems. It is very true, and we have confirmed it so many times, that science is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration... and the inspiration is acquired by working.
In fact, sometimes, overly quick intellects are not good for science because they get bored too easily. Willpower, tenacity, obviously a certain amount of austerity, unbreakable resolve, basic knowledge, capacity to work, love for what you do, all these things are welcome. Not wanting to bore young scientists with advice, I usually give them a few tips, some cynical, others idealistic, to help aspiring scientists survive today’s world.
Science today, with its collective teams, is not the same as the science of Newton. Probably there will not be many talents in the history of mankind comparable to Newton’s. Today, he could not function in the way he did, and my comment about tenacity and willpower is beautifully reflected in the answer Newton gave when he was asked: “How did you manage to discover gravity?” He replied “By thinking about it continuously”. That is something of an obsession.
But one has to be careful because, as Faraday said, a genius is someone who believes that what is true for him is true for all, and he therefore fights for it. But, someone who is stupid does exactly the same. Therefore, there is only a fine line between the sublime and the ridiculous.
In a group of students, can the potential researcher be detected?
Yes, in extreme cases. But above all, it is the one who is not who is noticeable. In general it can be detected, but it is a combination of the things I have said before. Love for the work, enthusiasm, willpower, intelligence, although intelligence can sometimes be disguised in the sense that, someone who you don’t know very well, may not appear intelligent because he doesn’t understand, however it maybe that the lack of understanding is due to an inadequate background.
If you have known them all along their trajectory it is very noticeable. But you have to be careful because some of the best researchers have not been the best students. They have become enthusiastic later.
That does not mean that people with poor curricula should be promoted and not value five years of work. But it is more noticeable in the doctorate, where they have to contribute something. When I see enthusiasm, wanting to do, and work, I am always inclined to offer opportunities.
A specific question. Was Pedro Miguel Etxenike a normal young man?
Absolutely. Like now...
No one told him: “you are ahead”?
I always got good marks. I’ve been told I made some records in Lecaroz. There we had marks for conduct, urbanity and application. Conduct was discipline, urbanity scored points or not, for example, if your coat was impeccable or, if conversely, you had managed to write on it four formulae as a reminder, and application was the average mark of all subjects. I think that, in Lecaroz, I achieved records which undoubtedly have now been broken. But previously no-one else had... To get 5 for conduct and 5 in urbanity meant almost certainly a punishment, and to get an average of 7 in application meant almost a prize. The marks were read out publicly by the prefect and, on one occasion, I was given 1 for conduct, 1 for urbanity and 10 for application.
I have been a very good student, in most things. There were others I never took to, I was never very good in the formation of the national spirit for example, but that didn’t count. Obviously because, in Lecaroz, those of us who came from a certain sector were not very enthusiastic in that field.
I was very bad in anything related to music and drawing. They say you can learn with training but I find it difficult to be in tune and have to repeat a verse all day to be able to sing it well, even if I enjoyed it at the end. I was terrible in gymnastics; however, in sports I was good.
So you had the odd formula written on your coat?
Yes, I did have things written on my coat to remind myself, but that is why I got 1 in urbanity. In the school at Lecaroz there were two prizes for excellent performance over the whole school, that were placed on the board of honour, and it was nearly always the same people who received them. Pedro Miguel Etxenike and Carlos Tamayo, who is a great friend of mine, now director of Kutxa, a highly intelligent person with a great common sense.
So you had a good run... We have talked about research. Is everything valid in research? Is it difficult to overstep the mark?
In the first place, science has its limits and it should have them. What is dangerous is for the wrong people to impose those limits, because there are instances in the history of science which show that, every time this happens, the results are bad. It is very difficult to predict if the use of knowledge, for instance, infinitesimal calculus, Einstein’s equation e = mc2. Is it good or bad? To impose limits on science is very dangerous.
Having limits in science is something different, even intrinsic ones, but this is a different question. For example, the fact that the speed of light is finite, Gödel’s Theorem, Heisenberg’s Indetermination Principle are all absolute and intrinsic limits in science.
These are not the most important limitations; the most important are the relative ones. Some of these relate to Popper’s Hypothesis about an experiment being capable of demonstrating the untruth of a theory, but billions of experiments will never be able to confirm one hundred per cent of the truth of a theory. Those are the limitations.
Following that introduction, the most fundamental limit, the one you are asking about, is the ethical limit, isn’t it? That is an extremely difficult argument. I insist that you have to tread very carefully. But I do feel that not everything that is possible is desirable. For example, to research widely on a virus to kill a race is intrinsically wrong. This does not mean to say that from good research something cannot arise that will allow it.
But as far as the end in itself is concerned... For instance, when there is a dilemma such as that faced by researchers working on the atomic bomb. Should this have been researched or not? One can say: never. But what if the Nazis were investigating it at the same time? Not even then? Should they be allowed to dominate the world? The answer to this question was, of course, different for those who had suffered under the Nazis in Europe and were researching in the United States than for some scholars who had not.
My answer to this would be that not everything that is possible is desirable and that limits must be treated with extreme caution; it is down to society as a whole to establish those limits, not only to scientists. But scientists are not innocent; their interest is not the supreme value.
When speaking about social innovation...
What is social innovation?
Existing movements focused on improving life. Are they generally well managed?
I believe that every movement can contribute to something and can also contribute to spoil it; we have seen, for instance, anti-nuclear movements twenty or thirty years ago, based on enormous scientific ignorance, where all they may have achieved by stopping the research was to delay human, social and world community development. Here we also have to be very careful.
I do not support the free-for-all. I believe that society must have a way of taking part in developments. But this has to be expressed in a rational way, for instance the Royal Commission in England. It cannot be left at the mercy of the interests of private groups.
Every serious, thinking movement will always be useful. But it also true that, sometimes, I have the feeling that some movements are manipulated. They think they are fighting against pressure groups but instead they are actually being used by them. There lies the sophistication of a democratic society, its democratic stature, and the appropriate linked mechanisms of participation, which are used in the decision making process.
It is really very difficult...
That is why I have already said that a society has to be scientifically well informed, because that makes it less susceptible to manipulation by individual interests. It can also make better judgements. Many of the decisions to be taken by modern societies have a large element of science and technology.
A well informed society in terms of the general aspects of science, what is science and what it is not, how it works, can make better decisions. One can be in favour or against Homeopathy but must first know what Homeopathy is. And, of course, if what Homeopathy does is to delay the diagnosis of a serious illness, it is a different matter.
We have in CAPV a young public university, founded in the 1980’s. From the outside we get the impression that it is a university with many of the traits of a traditional university. I have heard you say that Spanish universities are underfinanced and overregulated. Is this also the case in the universities in Basque Country?
Of course it is. The universities of the Basque Country have their central, spinal, structure excessively regulated by legislation approved by the Spanish parliament, which is extremely rigid. When we voted for the Autonomic Statute we never thought that the core of our political autonomy would be regulated by the central public powers.
This is what we have repeatedly denounced as a violation of the statutory pact. That violation, in the Basque case, is not so much financial, since here the “Concierto” (economic agreement) has allowed an important distinction which has resulted in substantial improvements in self-government, but it is a violation in terms of political scope. “Club politics” lead to something that I have experienced personally: “Well, you are right but we cannot do it because with 17 communities etc. etc...” That is why I support an individual and differentiated relationship with Spain.
The universities in the Basque Country are structurally rigid institutions like Spanish universities. They are overregulated. I endorse the internal autonomy of universities. Basque universities are overregulated by a punctilious Spanish legislation and by Basque laws that are even more so. It is also underfinanced.
Having said that, it is also true that the Basque universities have improved substantially and continue to do so. However, they base their research component, which is what defines a globally competitive university, on a very small percentage of its lecturers. This has to be clarified because a research university has to be one where practically all, or a very high percentage of its lecturers conduct research. And that is the objective.
The starting point is therefore difficult. It has to be understood that to have a good university is expensive, very expensive, much more expensive than we imagine and what we are investing. You only have to look around the world. Therefore, if we want the Basque Country to be a world or a European reference point for innovation and research, there are two essential bases on which it must be established: the education system in general, and the university system in particular. We know that we have to attract, retain and nourish talent, and today that requires pay and working conditions far superior to those we currently have.
That is the reality, and the rest is nonsense. If we really believe in what we say, we have to act accordingly. In my opinion, neither the education system nor the universities are acting according to the level of their verbal commitments, although strides are being made in the right direction.
Is there a model?
The model I like is the one I have seen working well. The university system, the university as an institution is, after the Catholic Church, probably the longest lasting. Isn’t it? Which other institution has survived that long and endured so much? The advances of science in the XX century and throughout history have been built on the university, alongside with techno-scientific development. It has also been a support for the economy, and this evolution has had diverse models. There have been trials and errors, but which is the one that has succeeded?
The successful model in the world is that of Anglo-Saxon universities, with full autonomy, independence from public powers and self-regulation. But, of course, that self-regulation requires an adequate set of initial conditions.
Do we have them at present? If universities were allowed to function in the way Harvard does, what would they do? Would lecturers give themselves jobs for life? I don’t know, what I do say is that, if it is not allowed, we will never get anywhere near the levels of excellence. If universities were allowed to move towards total self-government, there would be a very difficult transition stage because there would be so many foul ups that we would doubt we were following the right path.
Autonomy does not mean complacency or self-regulation in the hands of lecturers from the institution itself. The model has already been tried and I believe it is the one we must follow. The problem is that the transition from an over-regulated and under-financed model to a non-regulated one, with ample finance, with freedom and demands of responsibility, could be traumatic and very difficult to achieve, if it is based exclusively on the interests of those already on the inside. But if we don’t try it we will always be mediocre.
We should place our University of the Basque Country – Euskal Herriko Unibertsitatea – at least amongst the best 200 in the world. I don’t say amongst the best 50. But currently we are not amongst the top 200 according to any evaluation criteria. Which universities are the best in the world in all classifications? Amongst the leaders are always the same: Cambridge University; this is not by chance since it is the university of Newton, Darwin, Bertrand Russell, Rutherford, Watson and Crick; Oxford with its Imperial College; ETH in Zurich amongst European ones. Probably none in Germany, which are excellent, are counted among the top 30 or 40. Then there are, always occupying the first places, the American universities: Harvard, MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), Berkeley, which is a state university, Stanford which is private, Yale, Columbia, Princeton, etc.
Why is this? It has a lot to do with self-government but also with financing. The funds of Harvard University alone reached this year 35,000 million dollars. This allows it to utilise, from its own funds, between 1,000 and 2,000 million dollars for research projects, student scholarships, etc.
We are talking here of higher orders of magnitude. That is what I was referring to before when I said that, if we really believe in what we say, we have to take a significant leap in the financing. It is an education issue. In my opinion, teaching staff in the education system – at basic and university levels – and research staff have to be treated differently.
You were the first Education Minister of the Basque Country in 1980. You think in Basque terms. As a scientist, has that position closed any doors for you?
In the Spanish university world, I don’t think so. In the wider world, I am sure it has not. I believe that, the Spanish university system in general, and the Higher Council for Scientific Research in particular, have treated me splendidly. At present we are collaborating with the Council and I feel exceedingly well treated, in fact the president of the Council, Carlos Martinez, always wants to put me forward for all kinds of prizes, and it is I who would prefer if others were nominated.
It is possible that this sort of thing has happened in the adjudication of projects. I remember one occasion in a Hispano-American project there was a very stupid fellow who said that Basques should not be financed. We contacted the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the harm was undone.
Nevertheless, as far as the participation in Administration Councils of some companies is concerned, I have been vetoed not because I am a Basque, but for not having certain political affiliations.
You have talked about UPV-EHU, our state university within CAPV, and about the challenge of placing it amongst the top two hundred in the world... The size is important, isn’t it? Euskal Herria is small...
Size matters, of course, but Switzerland is also a small country and has institutions of higher education amongst the best in the world, the ETH of Zurich, the Polytechnic of Lausanne. I believe that Euskal Herria is small but sufficiently large to have a great university. That is the great challenge of being small.
Speaking of large and small. Could you please explain to us what nanotechnology is?
Previously, when I explained about the largest and the smallest, I did so in a different context. I said that the atom is almost the symbol of the understanding of matter based on quantum physics, one of the key words that define the XX century.
The organisation of matter, its stability, can be worked out through quantum physics; nanotechnology is not something that emerges from any single discipline, like physics, but it is the study of the behaviour of matter at a given scale, the nanometric scale. This matter is not exactly physical-atomic or physical-macroscopic. They are occurrences of nanometric size. The nanometre is a thousandth of a metre. For example, the width of the chain of the double DNA helix is 2 nanometres. One nanometre is 10 angstroms and one nanometre is 10-9 metres, which means that there are one thousand million nanometres in one metre.
This is the context within which many biological, chemical or physical phenomena occur. It is intrinsically interdisciplinary. It is the behaviour of matter in nanometric environments. Because, in many instances, it is not the atom which confers the properties to matter but its environment. For example, nanometric particles measuring 70 or 50 nanometres are the ones that produce, due to their interaction with light, those wonderful colours in the windows of ancient cathedrals. Gold is very yellow when you see it, but it changes colour if its size is reduced, or if it contains impurities. Size does matter.
Nanotechnology is the study of matter at a scale where some of its properties are qualitatively different to those of isolated atoms, and also of much larger aggregates made up of huge number of atoms.
What does nanotechnology allows us to do?
As I have said before, I am not keen on future predictions. What is important is not trying to guess what it would allow us to do, if we do that we will make mistakes, but to be aware that the great challenge presented by nanotechnology is to enable us to create specific structures, in specific positions, with atomic precision and with specific functions. We can create a nanorobot that flies an embolism for example.
I could reply by saying that magnetic nano-particles or gold nano-particles, prepared so that when inter-reacting with infrared light, collectively exciting their electrons, can destroy a tumour. These speculations will bring things far greater than we can imagine. That is why we have to understand and be cautious not to make mistakes. It is something we do not understand yet. Important and unexpected things have always emerged from acknowledging things that are not understood.
But I am not in favour of believing that this is the great revolution either. Partly what is happening is what my friends, Txema Pitarke and Igor Campillo, Director General and Institutional Director respectively of Nanogune in Donostia, call the “nanonisation” or “nanoiosociation”, meaning that everyone calls what they do “nano”, because that is where the financing is.
I mean by this that now we cannot put all our bets on “nano”, as if it were the holy grail. We have to put our bets on knowledge. I am in favour of betting for materials, for solid state physics and also for nanotechnology; we cannot finance mediocre projects because they are “nano” and put aside other excellent projects because they are not.
I will go back to 1980, specifically to the moment when you took the telephone call from Carlos Garaikoetxea to offer you the presidency of the Education Department in the Basque government. Has it ever occurred to you to have gone into politics?
First of all, I am very grateful to Garaikoetxea for thinking of me, and for allowing me to take part in a world which I thought was well above my capabilities and where I then saw I could make a contribution by learning from great masters, the first being Lehendakari Garaikoetxea. I refused him three times. In fact I came to Euskal Herria to give him the definite no, but between Koldo Mitxelena, Pako Garmendia, my brother and others, in the journey to the Bizkaia Provincial Council I changed the no to yes. Now I am very pleased to have accepted.
I value politicians enormously, and don’t follow the current tendency to demean their activities, thinking that the politician is there only for his own benefit. Evidently, there have been people who have taken advantage of politics and have stained the image of all politicians. But in a society that despises those who they elect to organise the most important thing they have, their own coexistence, something must be failing.
I have seen many people giving a great deal in exchange for very little, trying to make coexistence in this society work. We worked very hard, such long hours! So much talent in that Government! And I don’t say that just for myself, obviously, but also for all my teams, of which you were also a part. If we had dedicated that much enthusiasm to private industry, how far would we have gone? I am convinced we would all be loaded, without a doubt. I think what that first Government achieved is admirable.
I am very pleased to have been part of that cabinet, and pleased that, as I am told, I did manage one or two achievements. They tell me that I have been the youngest minister in the history of Euskadi. I am the only one who has been Minister of Education and Culture, with two different departments, when I succeeded Ramon Labayen.
I have always seen politics as a two-way path. I like the fact that, in politics, there are people who have no problem with turning back or deciding to do something else, otherwise that would affect their decisions. I never saw politics as a definite path. I am very glad to have taken part in it, but am also glad of my decision to come out.
Surely, if you had continued in politics, you would not have become president of Jakiunde...
Of course not.
Can you tell me what you expect of Jakiunde?
I hope Jakiunde will become an open organisation where one doesn’t have to wait until someone else dies to get in. That means an organisation that adopts an important critical mass, with a large number of members. I hope that society will await the appointments of Jakiunde every year as something that gives prestige to the institutions they belong to and that critical mass should become a great consultative council for public and private institutions.
I hope that any institution with a relevant social activity can ask Jakiunde about the competence of their work. Also, there is the issue of evaluation, because our society is very used to taking initiatives but not so used to evaluating them afterwards. A great deal of money is spent on some initiatives whose results are never appraised.
I would allow it to develop as a group, which if fact already has, irradiating excellence from a set of activities, and to be independent, albeit involved in the development of the fields of Basque science, language and culture. I would like to leave it on track for the next president, in any case, within two or three years.
You are a member of the Trilateral Commission, have won the Principe de Asturias Prize, named Universal Basque, Principe de Viana prize winner and Favourite Son of Isaba...
All those honours and many others only show that I have been very lucky and I say that with pride. I believe that there is no greater arrogance than false modesty. Without any false modesty, and with my feet on the ground, I want to say that I have been lucky and that my land and my country have recognised me, maybe excessively, but I am not going to complain about it and I am deeply grateful.