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Michel Spiro: Basic sciences for sustainability

The French physicist shows how curiosity-based research can help in the efforts to achieve Sustainable Development Goals

Spiro in a meeting of the Board of the CERN & Society Foundation, in Switzerland


The world is in a race against time to achieve, by 2030, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)—a set of global targets established in 2015 by the United Nations General Assembly aimed at eradicating poverty and promoting quality of life, within the conditions that the planet offers and without compromising the future of the next generations. And basic sciences are essential for reaching these goals, according to Michel Spiro, aged 76 from France, president of the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics (IUPAP), an organization that joins several global physics societies for the development of the field and cooperation between researchers from different countries.

“Research driven by curiosity is the basis of great technological advances that stimulate innovations in different areas,” he highlights. He mentions synthetic human insulin production, essential for the treatment of people with diabetes, vaccines against the novel coronavirus, and the discovery of graphene, which can be incorporated into other materials to make them more resistant. “All of these innovations came from research without an immediate purpose,” he states.

Spiro graduated in theoretical physics in the Polytechnic School, in Paris, in 1969. Over the course of his career, he has worked at some of the main research institutes in his country, including The French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) and the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS). He was the president of the French Physics Society (SFP) and played an important role in studies resulting in the discovery of the intermediate bosons W and Z in the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), which houses the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world’s largest particle accelerator.

Since June, he has sought to mobilize scientists dedicated to basic research to show their work and highlight how they can help achieve the SDGs. The effort is part of the International Year of Basic Sciences for Sustainable Development, created by the physicist himself and coordinated in collaboration with the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Launched in June 2022, the initiative should extend until the end of 2023. The objective is to promote meetings between researchers, political leaders, decision makers, and representatives from civil society and the private sector, to discuss the importance of curiosity-based science for global sustainability and how to support its development. In an interview with Pesquisa FAPESP, Spiro gave an overview of the discussions from the meetings held so far.

Do we have enough basic science to achieve the SDGs?
No. More investment is needed. It is true that many countries have committed to allocating between 1% and 3% of their Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to science and technology, but from what we have seen, many are still struggling to reach their own investment goals in this area. Additionally, governments, in general, tend to favor research activities that give a visible and immediate return, and consider the resources for basic sciences as an extravagance. This does not seem like a sensible attitude to me, above all because we know from past experiences that research driven by the intellectual curiosity of scientists is a source of knowledge that future generations will use to face their problems.

Where are the main gaps?
In all the SDGs, as they are deeply connected to each other. For example, one of the goals is to ensure sustainable production and consumption standards in the world by 2030. This means that we need to develop strategies that enable the sustainable management and efficient use of natural resources, so as to reduce the generation and disposal of waste. To do so, we have to substantially increase the share of renewable energy in the global energy matrix. In other words, one goal depends on the other.

And in what manner do these goals depend on the basic sciences?
One of the ideas behind the sustainable development goals is achieving a circular economy model, based on reusing natural resources and the reduction of waste. For this, it will be necessary to invest in strategies that are able to decarbonize the electricity sector as much as possible. This depends on lots of innovations and these innovations depend on concepts and knowledge produced by the basic sciences, which can not only help to improve the performance of batteries and supercapacitators, but also generate completely new ideas, capable of going further and creating new paradigms.

Can you give an example of a major contribution of the basic sciences?
One of the most prominent examples of the links between basic research and socioeconomic changes was the transistor. The first transistor appeared on the market at the start of the 1950s, after almost half a century of basic research in public laboratories. This opened the way for the development of the first chips. Since then, the miniaturization of integrated circuits has enabled the manufacture of smaller and smaller devices, many used nowadays in food production, the generation of clean energy, and in the development of medications, vaccinations, etc. It is this type of contribution that we should be seeking.

Are there countries that are more advanced in this sense?
South Korea, Israel, the USA, Japan, and European countries are playing an important role.

What are they doing?
They seem to have understood the strategic importance of the basic sciences for the development and competitiveness of their economies, strengthening national defense, and maintaining the health and well-being of the population, and increased funding for projects of this nature. What we want now is to go further and also highlight the importance of basic sciences for sustainable development. It is important to understand that this research seeks to answer fundamental questions, enabling us to move forward and face real problems—although part of it will serve only to expand the threshold of knowledge. In any case, truly revolutionary ideas require a long time to mature. There still seems to be resistance to this type of research in developing countries, which is understandable. Faced with the lack of resources, it is natural that the governments want to favor studies that provide visible and immediate returns. But, as I said, this doesn’t seem like an intelligent decision.

Curiosity-driven research is the source of information that future generations will use to face their problems

What are the objectives of the International Year of Basic Sciences for Sustainable Development?
In general, we want to highlight the links that exist between basic sciences and sustainable development. The basic sciences are driven by curiosity and investigation. They constitute the fundamentals of education and the source of ideas and discoveries that can radically change our understanding about scientific concepts and create paradigms. They are, therefore, essential for inclusive sustainable development, capable of reducing global inequalities and promoting well-being on a healthy planet. We want to convince political leaders, entrepreneurs, and society in general about this vision.

What have been the main results achieved so far?
We have held conferences in many countries in an attempt to promote the exchange of ideas between scientists and the interested public, in a way that makes them aware of the role of basic sciences in the efforts to achieve the sustainable development goals. The first was the opening ceremony in June 2022 at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris. There were several round-table discussions with scientists, heads of state, and government and private sector representatives. We have also held large events in Vietnam and Serbia, which had participation from scientists from Eastern Europe, such as Russia and Ukraine. We have other conferences scheduled to take place in Honduras and Rwanda, with dates still to be defined.

One of the objectives of the International Year is to promote scientific education and training. Why is this important for reaching the SDGs?
Because they are at the base of scientific progress. There is no basic science without trained and curious individuals. That’s why it’s important to guarantee that young people and children have access to quality scientific education from an early age. This could trigger their interest in research and an academic career. Learning the scientific method in school will teach them the importance of trial and error, of testing hypotheses, and reexamining their certainties when new evidence arises. Children learn to value the search for truth, strengthening the fight against the spread of misinformation. Whatever career they choose to follow, these acquired skills can be applied in many areas of their life.

And what can scientists do to help in this regard?
Engage in teaching activities in schools, for example, explaining to young adults and children what they study, the importance of their research, what impacts they can have on society, and triggering curiosity about scientific work.

It is easy to identify the role of basic sciences in combating climate change, in encouraging industrialization, and in promoting innovation, but how can they be used to reach objectives such as promoting peace and strengthening ties between countries?
Through collaborations in research and scientific diplomacy. We have highlighted the importance of supporting more inclusive research, involving effective participation of female scientists and other minorities, and of incentives that promote the circulation of researchers. It is essential that science is adequately funded and that the researchers have the opportunity to collaborate with colleagues from other institutions and countries, in order to promote intercultural dialogue and pacific cooperation between people.

And how can the basic sciences help promote more inclusive societies and gender equality?
The inclusion of women in basic science efforts is one of the main messages that we are trying to relay in the conferences we have been holding around the world over the last months. IUPAP itself has been trying for some years to encourage the participation of women in physics. I think that connecting basic sciences to sustainable development is a way of making it more inclusive, and vice versa. More diversity in science means more people thinking about the problems we have and how to tackle them.

Was the pandemic capable of alerting political leaders about the risks of favoring the funding of applied science in detriment of basic science?
The basic sciences were and still are fundamental in fighting the novel coronavirus. Few people realize it, but it was the basic sciences that allowed us to understand the action mechanisms of this pathogen and develop immunizations in record time. But it doesn’t appear that this has been capable of changing the perception of some political leaders with regards to the importance of the basic sciences in tackling complex global issues, especially in the current context of the economic crisis and wars.

What are the scientists who work in basic subjects doing and what can they do better so that their work can play a more significant role in the efforts to achieve a sustainable future?
The business-as-usual model is no longer an option. In other words, just doing research and publishing scientific results is not enough. Every researcher, through their institution, especially when funded with public resources, needs to make an effort to connect with society, engage in educational initiatives, promote gender equality, and defend the environment. They need to involve themselves more in global decision-making processes, helping the decision makers to produce more effective policies.

How can the adoption of open science practices improve the use of basic sciences for reaching the SDGs?
Scientific knowledge must be understood as a universal asset, essential so that the world can face common problems. In this sense, open science is fundamental for achieving the sustainable development goals, being of utmost importance for the dissemination of basic science results. It is clear that this view may conflict with the particular interests of some countries, that see this information as something strategic for their development and competitiveness, especially in a context of increasing nationalistic and protectionist tendencies. The world happens to be facing urgent and complex questions, and to tackle them, we need to promote the collaboration and sharing of data. Open science, in this sense, has contributed to greater transparency in research and can help to reduce the knowledge gap between nations and promote international scientific collaboration.

How do developing countries like Brazil position themselves in these efforts?
Brazil has a long tradition of research in basic science. I hope that this continues and that the newly elected government focuses more on sustainable development again.