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Rosa Menéndez – President, CSIC

“Having completed a year as president of the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) Rosa María Menéndez López spoke to us in this interview about her commitment to developing society’s scientific talent, new challenges in the field of research, energy, and the management of natural resources, as well as about how important it is to give visibility to the work this government agency performs.”

1.       What are your current objectives while heading up CSIC?

My main challenge is to ensure that the research conducted in our 120 centers and in all our science departments is bolstered and that it achieves a greater social impact. All this while maintaining and strengthening the scientific and technical excellence that defines us.

The CSIC is the leading research institution in Spain and ninth in the world. It publishes more than 10,000 articles per year in cutting-edge international journals. My mission is to increase our technological impact and spearhead more international initiatives.

To achieve this, first and foremost we support research personnel participation in various initiatives, mainly European ones; and we also promote collaboration between different specialization groups, which is one of CSIC’s significant strengths. Additionally, we pay particular attention to investment for infrastructure and laboratory equipment, which includes upgrading some of our most important centers.

Another priority of mine is to significantly increase CSIC’s collaboration with the private sector, through agreements with both large companies and SMEs, contributing to the creation of new technology-based companies.

Finally, through public sector employment opportunities, which have seen an increase in 2018, we want to attract the best young researchers, including those who want to return to Spain. To achieve this, it is important to consolidate our legal and administrative structure, as well as our management tools.

The CSIC is the leading research institution in Spain and ninth in the world. It publishes more than 10,000 articles per year in cutting-edge international journals.

2.       Could you describe one of the more interesting projects currently underway at CSIC?

I have to stress that at CSIC there are close to 3,000 research projects underway, many of them very important on both a national and international scale. Currently, for example, I can highlight the studies on vaccines for human illnesses and the immune response, tumors and cellular plasticity, the atmospheres of other planets, superconducting materials for energy applications; or studies on neurodegeneration, renal fibrogenesis, colon cancer, high levels of ozone, antibiotic resistance, archaeobotany, demographic evolution, etc. I also don’t want to overlook applied projects in probiotics, aquaculture, soils, use of exoskeletons and applied robotics, to cite some examples.

 

3.       You managed Spain’s Energy Plan. What does Spain need to do in this area?

Right now, in the middle of a transition toward a model that is increasingly comprised of renewable energy, there are many key points to cover, most of them related to research and innovation. On one hand, there is the integrated use of solar and wind power, which requires careful distribution re-planning and a better understanding of consumption. On the other hand, there is the search for a large-scale energy storage mechanism that would cover non-peak periods and improve the supply quality. This is a very important topic for CSIC, which is working in collaboration with the private sector specifically on redox flow batteries, which can be recharged numerous times and support high scalability.

In the industrial area, we are designing circular economy solutions, which include the reuse of materials and creating its own energy.

4.       Spain supports Europe’s 2030 targets: 34% of consumption coming from renewable sources and a 33% improvement in energy efficiency. What do you think about this commitment?

We are one of the best placed countries in Europe to meet these targets, thanks mainly to our natural environment: we have huge potential in terms of solar and wind energy, which is complemented by hydroelectric power. In regard to the energy efficiency commitment, maybe not everyone knows about the developments CSIC is making in relation to efficient households, but we are convinced that this is a realistic objective.

In the industrial area, we are designing circular economy solutions, which include the reuse of materials and creating its own energy.

 

5.       From the research you’ve referenced, we see that some of your strategic points are based on global change and hydrological resources. Why are these topics a priority, and what is their impact, not just on the environment, but also on society?

Global change is a significant challenge for our society. Let’s not forget that we all live on the same planet; the pace of natural resource consumption and the environmental impact that we have maintained in the western world cannot be extended to the rest of the world without causing it to collapse. The direct impacts on the climate, such as global warming due to the increase of CO2, the exploitation of topsoil and the spreading of monoculture, deforestation and even desertification and the scarcity of hydrological resources, these are priority topics because they play an inherent role in our wealth as an inhabitable planet, rich in biodiversity – and therefore our future. As a society, we should be capable of maintaining a balance between resources and their exploitation, but also guaranteeing a good quality of life for the whole population. If we don’t achieve this, the social, economic, and political ramifications will be enormous.

 

6.       Another strategic point is aging and quality of life. What are the social repercussions of these factors and how do you think biomedicine and biomechanics can help alleviate them?

It is a challenge to guarantee a decent quality of life during a lifetime which is increasingly getting longer. From a purely health care standpoint, at CSIC we work to improve medications and techniques that help reduce the impact of neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, and in general to provide earlier and better diagnoses. This includes health care devices from biomechanics that connect with our nervous and motor system. Improving our nutrition is also essential. In this area we have groups that are promoting a platform to achieve a better diet.

From a long-term perspective, other teams are trying to understand the mechanisms of cell death and their role in aging.

Ten years ago, CSIC established Project LINCGLOBAL (an International Laboratory for Global Change), a cutting-edge initiative to foster long-term scientific integration and collaboration in global change sciences between CSIC and Latin American researchers.

7.       In CSIC research studies, the international factor is fundamental; we know that in Europe CSIC is an integral part of the European Research Area (ERA), but with respect to Latin America, what channels of collaboration have you established and what common programs do you participate in?

The internationalization of scientific work is another one of my priorities. Indeed, CSIC has participated continuously in the EU Framework Programs for research since they began in 1984, and channels for collaboration with Latin American countries have come out of some of these projects. Still, cooperation with Latin America is kept up by using in-house resources for annual grants to finance exchanges with recipient countries of official development assistance, through i-COOP projects and for other countries that aren’t included on this list, through i-LINK projects. Ten years ago, CSIC established Project LINCGLOBAL (an International Laboratory for Global Change), a cutting-edge initiative to foster long-term scientific integration and collaboration in global change sciences between CSIC and Latin American researchers. It was launched jointly with the Universidad Católica de Chile, and recently the Universidad Federal de Rio de Janerio has joined the project.

 

8.       Now that companies are facing the challenges of digital transformation and betting on innovation (the insurance industry has invested more than €160 billion in innovation in the last five years), how do you see the relationship between public institutions and business in the area of research?

Digital transformation has had and continues to have an important innovation component, but has also previously had a critical research one. To give an example: current research in basic techniques such as deep learning are done in multi-nationals that want to exploit the impact that it already has on activities like automatic text and voice recognition or the design of intelligent wizards. But this is only the first step.

European companies should commit to strengthening cooperation with public institutions. The CSIC is totally open to this type of collaboration, provided it involves a clear social benefit.

Big data enables the exhaustive exploitation of personal data, not always with noble intentions, and intersects with areas generically considered in the past as robotics. For example, self-driving cars. This is going to bring about a new revolution.  The problem is that public institutions are losing this race even in basic research, given the enormous investment required and the push from the private sector. But this also means that the concentration of knowledge is in the hands of multi-nationals or major powers like China, which is generally not desirable.

 

European companies should commit to strengthening cooperation with public institutions. The CSIC is totally open to this type of collaboration, provided it involves a clear social benefit.

 

9.       With which sectors do you see this relationship being the most productive?

To begin with, one of the first would be the insurance industry. The impact of digital transformation still has some way to go, especially when it comes to designing new strategies for quality of life, and at all levels: from mobility planning to the improvement of support systems for the most vulnerable in society. We are also working with raw material manufacturers, where we are involved from the roll-out of agricultural robots to defining a blueprint for a sustainable industry.

 

10.       Finally, which projects do you want CSIC to focus on in the coming years?

On one hand, CSIC is involved in significant global initiatives such as new detectors for CERN’s Large Hadron Collider or the SKA (Square Kilometer Array) astrophysics initiative, to cite two important examples. In Europe, its participation in initiatives such as INSTRUCT (structural biology), Lifewatch (biodiversity), and EMSO (marine observatory) stand out.

Although right now we are very excited with our “Interdisciplinary thematic platforms” (PTIs) which approach problems from a “mission” perspective. Various CSIC centers participate together with businesses and university groups, such as the SUSPLAST platform for sustainable plastic management, the QTP platform for quantum technologies (where the second quantum computing hub in Europe will be deployed), SOILBIO, which is going to change the way we fertilize our soils, and other very niche programs that are producing results – like the one that is going to stop the advance of the Xylella Fastidiosa plague, which is threatening our olive trees.

I would also like to single out two new excellent European projects: The European Research Council (ERC)’s Synergy, which CSIC will head up, although we have to wait a couple of days before this excellent news is made public.

Finally, CSIC is driving Open Science in Spain, a key project to help us regain control of our research and the ability to exploit the knowledge that is generated by our researchers, from publications to data generated in projects, creating new possibilities in our twenty-first-century society.

 

Rosa Menéndez – Profile

Rosa María Menéndez López is the president of the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), a role she assumed in November 2017. She received her doctorate in Chemistry from the Universidad de Oviedo in 1986 and began her career with CSIC at INCAR (the National Institute of Carbon) in the capital of the Spain’s northern province, Asturias.

Over the course of her extensive scientific career she has participated in more than 30 research projects, 23 of which she managed, nine of which were in a pan-European context. In addition, she has published more than 200 articles in highly acclaimed, international journals; she has authored ten patents, and has supervised 18 doctoral theses.

It is not the first time that this scientist from Asturias, born in Cudillero, has taken on responsibility and management tasks. From 2003 through 2008, she managed the Institute of Carbon. Subsequently, she took on the role of vice president of scientific and technical research at CSIC. She has also been a reviewer for and coordinated various research and development programs for the European Union. She was the manager of Spain’s National Materials Plan and National Energy Plan. In fact, her work as a scientist has always been connected to carbon, where she began research into the applications of graphene, which include biomedicine and energy storage.

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