JOSÉ PIO BELTRÁN PORTER
INSTITUTIONAL COORDINATOR OF THE CSIC OFFICE IN THE VALENCIAN COMMUNITY
The institutional Coordinator of the CSIC Office in the Valencian Community is a Research Professor of the CSIC in the Institute Plant Molecular and Cell Biology (IBMCP in Spanish), mixed centre of the CSIC and the Universitat Politècnica de València (UPV). Doctor of Chemical Sciences by the Universitat de València (UV), he specialised in plant-pathogen interactions at the Montana State University (EEUU), and Molecular Genetics of flower and fruit development at the Max-Planck-Institut für Züchtungsforschung (Germany). He runs the Laboratory of Reproductive Biology and Biotechnology of Plants at the IBMCP. He holds three patents, has published more than one hundred papers in journals of international impact in his speciality and many other informative articles in the educational, cultural and social fields. Between 2007 and 2011, he was director of the scientific educational TV show “Trasfondo” of the RTV UPV (TV and Radio of the Polytechnic University of Valencia). He was vicepresident of the CSIC. Appointed ‘ad personam’ member of the Advisory Life Sciences Working Group of the European Space Agency (ESA). Member of the Board of Governors of the Joint Research Centre of the European Union from 2002 to 2013. Member of the Scientific Committee of National Parks. Correspondent Academic of the Royal National Academy of Pharmacy. He was president of the European Federation of Plant Biology Societies (EFPBS) from 2008 to 2010. President of the Committee of Bioethics of the CSIC. Member of the Scientific Committee of the CRAG (Centre de Recerca en Agrigenómica de Barcelona). Member of the Board of Directors of the European Plant Science Organization (EPSO) from January 2012 and its current President.
This time you visit Brussels as the President of the European Plant Science Organization (EPSO), could you explain the goals of this organization and which is your role in it?
The EPSO is an academic organization composed of more than 220 institutions, among which is the CSIC, that pursues the progress of research in the field of plants with the aim of taking up a better stance to face the new challenges of the 21st century. We are interested in the formation of researchers in fields such as plant improvement, agriculture, horticulture, silviculture or plant ecology. From the EPSO, we discuss on research programs with plants in all of Europe and pay special attention to the Framework Programmes of the European Union. We also offer advice on our field, providing independent information; one of our aims is to be the voice of plant research in Europe. The management of the EPSO is in the hands of a “Board” composed of ten members and an executive Secretary based in Brussels. In 2012, I was appointed member of the “Board”, and in January 2014 I was elected President of the EPSO. My work consists in planning the actions of the “Board” and supervise their execution, besides the representative function.
In order to fulfill their goals in the best way possible, the EPSO is part of the Technological Platform “Plants for the Future”. This platform also includes the “European Seed Association” (ESA), which is an organization that gathers more than 7,000 companies of the seed sector, of which more than 90% are small and middle companies, and Copa Cogeca, which gathers 76 organizations of farmers and more than 40,000 cooperatives of plant products. Between the EPSO, ESA and Copa Cogeca, we have provided the Platform with three strategic plans at the medium-term: one on Research, another one on Innovation, and a third one on Education.
What benefits does the CSIC get from being a member of the EPSO?
Well, from the general perspective, the benefit of participating in a network of such character is obvious. Considering a more specific level, I can give you a very current example. My role as a CSIC representative is to know, in this field, how my institution perceives, for instance, the contents of the H2020 Programme calls. For this purpose, I seek advice from the Coordinators of the areas of Agricultural, Food or other Sciences. In the last consultation, I was informed of the concern about the absence of calls on emerging diseases in plants due to the alarms raised from problems caused by Xylella fastidiosa in olive and other fruit trees, or Diaphorina citri and Trioza erytreae as transmitters of the bacterium Candidatus liberobacter, the causative agent of “greening” in citric trees, or the Tomato Torrado Virus in tomatoes, among others. After debating this for days with our partners of the Technological Platform, we presented the problem to the European managers among the priorities of the Platform; at present, there are Framework Programme calls for the study of emerging diseases for several tens of millions of euros. Now is the time for our researchers to apply and get finance for their proposals.
You were also president of the European Federation of Plant Biology Societies (EFPBS) for two years. What did this experience provide you?
The EFPBS is a federation of scientific societies whose main concern is academic. Presiding the EFPBS gave me the opportunity to get to know colleagues that work in different countries of the European Union and understand the situation of plant research and university teaching in Europe. The approach of the EFPBS is more limited than that of the EPSO: each society is focused on its country and they exchange experiences at the federation level. The EFPBS also organises every two years a Congress at the European level. When I presided the EFPBS, I organised it myself in Valencia; it was a magnificent congress, of which I treasure a great memory.
From your point of view, do you think that the CSIC scientists make enough efforts and get good positions in this type of organizations?
It is difficult to generalise. I would say that there is a very important personal component. When I compare our situation with that of colleagues from other countries I see that the differentiating factor is the scarce attention payed from Spain to its representatives in international organizations. Spain makes a poor use of the potential that it has in international organizations. There are also representatives that perceive their representative job as a personal experience of which they expect to benefit and they do not show much interest in transmitting that benefit to their country or their institutions. Teamwork has never been our strength. Spain should improve in this aspect.
For over ten years you were a member of the Board of Governors of the Joint Research Centre, which is the scientific service of the European Commission and currently depends on the Commissioner of Education, Culture, Youth and Sports. According to your criteria, were is, or should, the Joint Research Centre be heading to?
The JRC has been contradicting itself for a long time. By definition, it is a scientific service that must provide advice to the different General Managements of the Commission. The institutes of the JRC are well equipped as technological institutes; however, they are not prepared to conduct first-level research in all the fields in which they must advise. Moreover, an important part of their budgets comes from the framework programmes. It is a competition for funds from within the Commission, which is widely criticised by the rest of the research implementing organizations, universities, public organizations, etc. To sum up, I do not see that the centres of the JRC are research centres, and they should not compete with the European research centres. They should function as a network, obtaining scientific information or even funding it so that it is developed in research centres when those studies are required for their advisory work. Their role as specialised advisors in scientific-technical issues should be maintained. They should also play an important role in the technical harmonization between the different countries of the European Union, as technological centres of reference for the different member countries.
Now focusing on the scientific dissemination works that you have coordinated, do you think there is a relationship between the volume and quality of scientific dissemination activities and the real impact on society?
The scientific culture in our country is limited. However, in the last few decades, there has been a large number of activities that aim at showing society the conviction that the best way to face the big challenges threatening humanity –challenges related to food production and distribution, population control or the production and use of sustainable energy, among many others– is the use of the scientific method to conduct analyses of each situation, propose solutions assessing risks and benefits, and make the corresponding decisions in a democratic manner. This task of persuasion requires the effort of the scientific community and the media at the medium and long term, and it turns especially difficult under circumstances of limited scientific research funding. The CSIC, for instance, makes a great effort of dissemination. It should do more, a lot more.
How is that impact measured? What actions are usually most successful?
In general, scientists and their activity receive a remarkable opinion among the Spanish citizens when asked for their appreciation among different professional activities. This could be a generic indicator. However, it is not always easy to obtain reliable indicators in our country. I run a TV show on scientific dissemination, La Ciencia en Nuestra Vida (Science in Our Life), which is broadcasted by the educational TV networks of Latin America. Over there I have hundreds of thousands of viewers. I also share them in the repositories of the CSIC, and probably few Spanish researchers know it, not to mention the general public. I have also directed and presented TV shows of scientific dissemination in the television of the Polytechnic University of Valencia with some degree of success at the local level, some thirty or forty thousand followers. It may seem these were not many, but it would be like filling up a football stadium on Sundays. We need the commitment of researchers to deliver our work to the rest of society. We owe them, since we and our studies are paid with tax money. Currently, I coordinate for Spain the initiative of the EPSO “Fascination of Plants Day” every two years on the 18th of May. Only in Spain, some 60 activities are performed that day which involve researchers, botanical gardens, research centres, schools, consumer associations, etc. In total, we coordinate several thousands of activities in more than forty countries. We measure the global impact in the media.
And last question, what goal must an institutional coordinator always keep in mind?
A good institutional coordinator of the CSIC must know that the role of the CSIC in the Spanish R&D system is essential; so essential that if it didn´t exist, it would have to be created. From that point, he/she must work to provide social visibility to the CSIC in its territory and try to help the CSIC researchers to have the best opportunities for the development of their work. Spain is composed of seventeen autonomous communities, and they all have governments with regulatory and financial functions of scientific policy. They also have science implementing organizations, universities, public regional organizations, technological institutions, etc. In the Valencian Community, for decades we have opted for an implementation model that revolves around mixed centres of excellence with the Valencian universities. The CSIC has eleven institutes in the Valencian Community and three of them, the Institute of Chemical Technology, the Institute of Corpuscular Physics and the Institute of Neurosciences, have been granted the recognition of quality Severo Ochoa. The institutional coordinator of the CSIC must pursue the synergies between all of them and also transmit a State scientific policy. We are the only public research organization with implementation in every territory; we are as Catalan as we are Andalusian, Valencian or from Madrid. We are from and for all the Spanish people. Furthermore, we are the ones who produce more science and the ones who transfer more knowledge and better. Self-satisfaction? None. We still have so much to do!