“Ikerbasque has helped create a culture of mobility in Basque science that did not exist”

Euskadi Research Award 2020, the chemist Fernando Cossío combines his work at the helm of Ikerbasque with the research he leads at the Donostia International Physics Center (DIPC) on the origin of the universe, a project that has won the first European ERC Synergy grant for the Basque Country , endowed with 9.3 million euros. The curriculum of this Cantabrian produces authentic vertigo and, even so, humility and clarity have accompanied him as a trademark. The same clarity with which he now takes stock of the 15 years of Ikerbasque.

I have heard him say on occasion that the Basque Science Foundation (Ikerbasque) was born as a “visionary initiative” that had the objective of “positioning the Basque Country as a European scientific node”. Mission accomplished?

Missions, like this one, are never accomplished. Let’s say that we are moving in the right direction and that we are getting better results than we thought at this point.

Do you remember how you came to Ikerbasque? How the Foundation was created?

When the Foundation was created I was not in Ikerbasque, the director was Mari Carmen Gallastegui to whom I expressed my gratitude in the speech for the fifteenth anniversary because she was really the one who launched the Foundation from scratch together with the Basque Government, naturally. When I arrived, it was still in its infancy and our first mission was to develop the three R strategy: recruit researchers of international prestige to repatriate researchers who, at a given moment, left the Basque Country to go to leading centers and, in turn, retain researchers who were already here but did not have a stable and consolidated position. Let’s say that the first step was to stabilize and create a critical mass of people dedicated to research. In parallel, we launched the first BERCs, the Basic and Excellence Research Centers up to the current six: Achucarro Basque Center for Neuroscience, BCBL, BCAM, BC3, Polymat and the Basque Center for Materials, Applications and Nanostructures, DIPC , Center for Materials Physics and Biophysics Unit.

Nowadays, it is not cool to talk about the Basque scientific ecosystem, to say that science and technology are pillars of the economy and to hope that the Basque Country will converge next year with Europe in public investment in R+D+i. Do you remember what was the weight of science in that Basque Country in 2007?

The truth is that I think that Ikerbasque arrived at the right time because research was already taking off at a scientific and technological level in the Basque Country. The University of the Basque Country, the universities of Mondragon and Deusto and the network, the technological alliances existed, therefore they had laid the foundations on which to build something solid. I would like to emphasize that Ikerbasque did not appear out of nowhere, in the middle of a desert. There was a Basque research community and Ikerbasque arrived to further promote scientific production. What was not there was a culture of mobility, of researchers who come, go and return… Modestly, I believe that Ikerbasque has contributed to creating a culture of exchange, mobility, flexibility and international connections.

I suppose that breaking the corset of the bureaucracy and having a free hand to sign talent was essential in that cultural change.

Of course, the possibility of attracting talent generates a feedback effect. The better known you are and the more good people you have, the more attractive you become and the more people want to come, stay or come back. We, let’s say, are a positive step in their trajectories and we also benefit from their contributions. In other words, it is like a flow, a fairly dynamic process, the end result of which is an improvement in the R&D carried out in the Basque Country.

“I imagine a science in which researchers work equally, with relationships and large infrastructures”

You are a man of science, so surely it will not be difficult for you to summarize in figures the contribution that Ikerbasque has made to change this scenario.

The organization has a total of 336 researchers from 35 countries divided into three categories: 175 consolidated, 91 young and 70 Research Associate, a category that complements the previous two and seeks to cover the different stages of the research career. All of them investigate in areas of knowledge that are considered strategic for the country. Ikerbasque has been selected up to 5 times as one of the best European initiatives for scientific development, receiving 24 million euros from the European Commission to promote its talent attraction programs. Since 2007, the research staff recruited have managed to bring a total of 295 million euros to the Basque Country and 1,300 people work in the groups led by these people. This has allowed Ikerbasque researchers to publish more than 10,000 articles in scientific journals of international prestige, sharing the results of their research projects. Since 2007 they have created 31 spin-off companies and have obtained 34 ERC (European Research Council) one of the most prestigious research grants worldwide.

And it has been shown that in addition to contributing to knowledge, investing in science is profitable.

Completely. For every public euro received, Ikerbasque returns two euros to Basque society.

What are the scientific fields in which the Basque Country plays in the league with the seniors?

We are a benchmark in experimental sciences, in physical and chemical sciences. This ranges from condensed matter physics to astrophysics, from organic chemistry and chemical engineering to materials science in its broadest sense: smart materials, polymers, and so on. We are also an international reference in social sciences and humanities, for example, in linguistics and multilingualism. I don’t want anyone to get angry, but we are a reference in molecular and cellular biology, in research on cancer, genetics, etc. Let’s say that the public effort that has been made has really put us in a pretty good international position, something certainly unthinkable 15 years ago.

Is the Basque Country already an attractive environment for attracting talent?

I would say yes. I will tell you an anecdote. While at an international conference, a Nobel Prize in Chemistry, the Pole Roald Hoffmann, approached me to tell me that in his team he had a person who was very, very good and who wanted to return to Europe. So he asked me if he could have a place at Ikerbasque. We opened a public call and in the end he was selected and he is still here with us.

And who is it?

This is the Ikerbasque Research Fellow, Bo Chen, who is doing research at the Donostia International Physics Center in high-pressure chemistry, something that sounds sophisticated, but can be very important in optimizing chemical reaction processes and in the mechanisms of origin of life, in high-pressure hydrothermal vents.

What role have senior researchers played in consolidating an increasingly solvent network? And what about women scientists?

Very important of course. At this level, the risk they run is less because they are researchers who, when they come here, already have very brilliant careers. This has allowed doctoral students, young researchers, to benefit from this network of contacts, to travel to international centers… It is a mutually beneficial relationship.

“Ikerbasque did not appear out of nowhere, in a desert, but it did help promote the science that universities and technology centers did”

But the gender gap is still there.

I am not going to hide the fact that at this level we have problems hiring women scientists since there are fewer of them within the senior population. Our goal is for at least 40% of the workforce to be women. The counterpart is that we started a program to attract young talent and there, yes, because the damage has not yet been done, the balance is balanced. Last year we reached parity since 50% of the new Ikerbasque researchers were young scientists.

Do you think that the timid improvements that the Basque Government or the UPV/EHU have introduced in the conditions of the youngest researchers are going to prevent the brain drain from continuing?

Globally, it probably is. The Department of Education and Universities has launched two extremely ambitious programs that are not incremental, but qualitative leaps. For example, the UPV/EHU Science Park has the most advanced electron microscope in the world, a device that will allow us to decipher the biological world on an atomic scale, which gives rise to the development of drugs and new treatments for neurodegenerative diseases and various types of cancer, as well as new vaccines. It all started at the suggestion of two Nobel Prize winners who told us that it was important to have an infrastructure of this caliber at the European level. The Department of Education assumed this initiative with complete enthusiasm and I am convinced that it will be able to do things that were previously impossible and that it will place the Basque Country in an advantageous position

Why?

Because this type of infrastructure is new and, in many aspects, not yet developed. But when these technologies are fully consolidated, we will already be on the main train and we do not have to get on the march, which is what unfortunately has happened on occasions. As an anecdote, I will tell you that recently a researcher who works in Texas came to whom we showed the infrastructure we had here and he was amazed. He told me: In the United States, to have access to the infrastructures that you have shown me, I have to take two planes and you have it here at hand. In other words, yes, I think that we are really going to take off in the next few years, which is quite important and that many people are going to come.

“Today, the Basque Country is a pole of attraction for talent, key to bringing, repatriating and retaining the best researchers here”

Basque research has experienced exponential growth but the Basque Country is an orphan in large scientific infrastructures such as the ALBA Synchrotron of Catalonia or the National Fusion Laboratory. Does the Basque Country still not have the necessary political influence to attract this type of million-dollar infrastructure?

First of all, to say that we do have unique facilities to which researchers from abroad come to work on them, for example, a microscope that was recently inaugurated at the University of the Basque Country. An unrestrained light source like the Dawn? They are, let’s say, installations counted throughout Europe.

I was asking him if he considers that a golden opportunity was lost with the European Spallation Neutron Source (ESS).

Yes, we escaped to the Swedish city of Lund. But, well, we are a reference in neutrinos.

And speaking of frontier knowledge, how do you imagine Basque science in 15 years?

I imagine a well-developed, influential science, with researchers working in parity, with a display of international collaborations and large infrastructures that allow us to prepare for what is to come. The next few years will see some very important leaps in science. I think that in 2037 we will be in a much better position than we were 15 years ago and than we are today, with all the great leap that has taken place.

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“Ikerbasque has helped create a culture of mobility in Basque science that did not exist”