I am a “Senior Scientist” in Polymat and “Ikerbasque Research Fellow”. I hold a PhD in organic chemistry (UCLM, 2004) and my research is currently focused on the development of organic materials for the preparation of perovskite-based solar cells.
You recently participated in the initiative Pint of Science in Donostia-San Sebastián (Basque Country). The name of your talk was: Energy and sustainable development, on the right path?
What made you participate? The organizer of Pint of Science suggested it. I like to show my science, so I went for it. It was a bit tricky to figure out the angle, what to talk about. I work with materials for photovoltaic energy, so it had to be related to this. The topic of materials can, however, be a little dull and these talks have to be cheerful and fun, so I decided to go for something more appealing. I made my talk about energy and sustainable development. I wanted to give information so people could ask themselves questions they would not otherwise ask.
Can you describe the place and the atmosphere? It was held in a bar called Bsiete, in a very well set up basement, with a big TV screen. At first, it seemed a little small to host so many people, but not everyone was sitting down, there were many people standing up. There was a very relaxed atmosphere. In the audience I could see some of my colleagues who came to see my talk and show their support, but most of the others, about 70%, were lay public. There were young people, as well as older ones, probably also retired men and women. Were there many pints? Haha! That is from the British culture where Pint of Science started… there was a bar and people were drinking different things. I was drinking water and I wasn’t the only one, people had to go to work the following day.
You mentioned that your talk provoked debate around nuclear power. Was this to be expected? Yes. I gave data points from the UN, Eurostat, and the WHO, but always stressing that what I was presenting was my own point of view, my opinion. I don’t think that my views are that revolutionary as to offend people or make them angry… It is per se a very controversial topic. Even if people don’t fully understand it, it is a topic that triggers debate and questions, and people feel very vocal about it. This will always mean that there are some more critical people or views within the audience. How did you feel and react to it? Well as I said I gave information and then stressed that it was my opinion. I tried to spend some time with every question. At one point somebody asked me about the risk of an accident in a photovoltaic plant and a nuclear plant, but the point is that the consequences of an accident are very different, in my point of view these two can’t be compared. So after explaining this I couldn’t say much more, there wasn’t a debate anymore, there were simply two contrasting points of view. So you have to let go. It is usually something concerning one or two audience members, so one shouldn’t focus on it that much. It also made other audience members jump in, so I think it was productive after all. Was it an unpleasant feeling? Well, right after the talk the organizer and other colleagues came to congratulate me. The organizer said that it was great and that I should participate again next year. My first reaction was to say: “right, you do it!” I had prepared the talk a lot, trying to show interesting data points, and as soon as I finished a woman said that my information was biased, which can make you feel a little annoyed after the time you have put into it. But after a while you see everything with a bit of perspective and you realize that it was a good experience after all. And I still think that scientists should give their opinion, not when they are unsure of course, but if you have a clear opinion that is backed up with data, then you should put it out there. This, the way I see it, is part of our work. I stated that oil and gas have played an important role, but now is time to move on, it is the time for renewable energy.
You talked for an audience of 100 people, and you described it as an active audience: people engaged with you but also with each other. In the research I conducted with scientists in the Basque Country, they believed this to be important. Do you also subscribe to this idea? Yes, I really like the discussion between audience members. Sometimes they would help me answer some of the trickiest or more polemic questions. I could feel that most of the audience was on my side, I could hear positive comments from audience members when I was answering questions. They would also intervene when somebody was blinded with an opinion or a point of view.
I have seen a metaphor in your slides: Pollution is “the tobacco” of the XXI century. Do you think metaphors are a good tool for science communication? It is a metaphor I found in a newspaper, but I think it has also been used by the WHO. I think metaphors are definitely a good tool. I think they make people think. I have my own metaphor when talking about costs of a type of energy. I like to talk about cheap and expensive, not only referring to kilowatts/h, but also including other factors, such as, the environmental damage and the health problems they bring. That is what really tells us how cheap or expensive they are, how much money we have to spend cleaning and getting rid of the waste they produce, for example.
Other than being good for society, do these activities bring you anything positive? Usually they don’t have many personal benefits, if I manage to make the audience understand something or show them that there are different points of view to the one they hold, well, then I feel satisfied. How do you know if the public enjoyed or learn something new? What makes you think: “oh, that went well!”? One of the indicators is the debate that is generated after the talk, the amount and type of questions they ask. If people stay longer, they want to hear more, if people have questions, well, then you know they liked it and they are interested. After my talk we spent about an hour debating and answering questions. It is also good to have other scientists or colleagues with you, since they can help in the debate and show their ideas and opinions alongside yours.
One of the findings of my research was that face-to-face was one of the most reported forms of science communication, do you have any tips for other people participating in these type of activities? I would think the most important part is to lower the scientific level of the talk. You don’t want people feeling overwhelmed or bored, I think it is more important to define well the context of you science. There is always time at the end to get more technical if the audience asks for it.