When Pere Estupinyà talks science, his face lights up. Estupinyà is a trained biochemist who has become a science communicator and a well-known lecturer on the popularization of science and technology. He has written popular books devoted to bringing scientific knowledge out of the spheres of laboratories and universities, and defines himself as an “omnivorous consumer” of science, since he believes in the importance of increasing public understanding of scientific issues, which he considers a vital tool to construct critical thinking.
For many, he is best known as “the Brain Snatcher”: a kind of alter ego he came up with, when he worked at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and discovered he could not resist the temptation to tell others what he learned from the world’s brightest minds. His true vocation was then revealed before his eyes: to write about science “as an excuse to be able to learn it”.
Despite his impressive career (he worked in the communications department of the National Institute of Health in Washington, DC, he was the Knight Science Journalism Tracker at MIT for five years, he’s been a consultant to the IDB and the OAS, among others), Estupinyà seems to not have lost that capacity of astonishment and curiosity for the world, an ability so pervasive in us during childhood, but lost as we become adults. It turns out that that same capacity, so critical for a scientist, is also a requirement for a good communicator.
We sat down for a talk with Estupinyà on his first visit to Panama; he recently visited the country for the XVI Congress of the Network for the Popularization of Science and Technology in Latin America and the Caribbean (RedPOP), which was held this year at the City of Knowledge, thanks to a joint effort of SENACYT and the City of Knowledge Foundation. We had, for a space of time, albeit brief, our own opportunity to rummage through the mind of this “Brain Snatcher”.
As a trained biochemist, how did the change from scientist to science communicator happen? Did you always have journalistic curiosity?
While I was getting my Ph.D. in Genetics, I realized that I was finding the daily work in the lab monotonous, maybe if I had been in a different laboratory, my scientific vocation could have continued, I don’t know. Do you know the phrase: “Patience is the mother of science?” well, I don’t have that quality. I mean, science can be slow, it requires sacrifice, and in the day to day it can be very hard.
I understood that, in my case, while science still interested me a lot, it did so very broadly, not only by way of the genetic polymorphisms that I was working on, but in many other ways.
So, I asked myself: how can I remain connected to the science that I am passionate about, without it being only lab research? Then I thought about scientific journalism, remembering the time when I started my studies in bio-chemistry, and I tried to explain to my friends and acquaintances what I was studying/doing.
Was this the birth of the “brain snatcher”?
It all started when I was at MIT, where I interacted and spoke on a daily basis with many top scientists: my job was to process all that information and explain it to people. The term came to me very organically: I felt like a Robin Hood of science, of sorts: a person in contact with those who know the most and then communicates it. The name didn’t convince me, until I realized I was the person who, in a way, “steals” knowledge to explain it to others. It’s my passion: to communicate science.
But, isn’t it too broad to speak of “science” in general?
I don’t see science as a single discipline, we have to broaden our spectrum: science is, at the end of the day, a method, a way to understand the world that one can apply to different aspects of one’s life and, therefore, it’s vital for understanding and solving specific problems in society.
This is especially relevant at the moment, when we’re surrounded by fake news and information taken out of context. Todaym more than ever, we need science to be widely disseminated, but above all, we need this task to be well executed. Those of us who devote ourselves to the communication of science need to be more aggressive in combating “anti-science”.
We have a responsibility to provide scientific answers to people’s questions and, in a way, help solve society’s true challenges; let us bring science to those matters of vital importance (for instance, we will not find the cure to Alzheimer’s with more hospitals, but with more science), and not only communicate what scientists consider important. Only then, will we succeed at being relevant.
Does this mean all scientists must be communicators?
No, I don’t see it that way. I believe scientists have the responsibility to do research and do their job well, period. Whatever institution employs them, it’s the organization who must communicate the results of their research; in turn, the researchers, indirectly, must have a predisposition to communicate. If some of them, on top of that, want to actively communicate science, that is perfectly fine, but it’s not a requirement for their jobs.
But we must avoid at all costs, is bad science communication, which can have a very negative impact. That is, if someone is not interested in science and you tell them: “Hey, this is important, this is interesting, hear me out” and they decide to give you a chance, but then you respond with bad communication, they will not come back for more. Therefore, poor communication is counterproductive. In this case, no communication would be better. I’m in favor of the professionalization of science communication.