Interview with M. Vicenta Mestre

«If we do science but we are not able to disseminate it, we are only halfway there»

Principal of the University of Valencia

M. Vicenta Mestre (Oliva, 1956) visits Mètode’s editorial office on a cold January day, in which a stroll through the Botanical Garden of the University of Valencia, location of the journal, does not seem the most appealing option. However, showing her friendly and familiar personality, she walks around this centenary space of the University for the photo shoot of this interview while we talk about her first months leading the University of Valencia. To the question of what are the challenges science will have to face in the next years, the first thing that comes to her mind is equality. The full professor of basic psychology is the first woman to hold the position of principal during the University of Valencia’s 520 years of history. A position which is currently held only by six other women in all Spanish public universities. That may be the reason why Mavi Mestre, as she is known among the university community, is more aware of the lower representation of women in higher positions of the Spanish university system. «The problem is not specific to the university, it is a social problem», she affirms. But the truth is that women are a majority in undergraduate, master’s degree, and doctoral studies – «and they perform better», the professor Mestre points out – and in the first levels of the teaching staff. «But this trend is reversed when you reach tenure», she concludes.

«I think we are at a social crossroads in which several aspects, such as the work carried out by the feminist movement over many decades, begin to be take effect»

Professor Mestre, who recently received the José Luis Pinillos award of Psychology in 2018 for her career, knows both the teaching and research sides as well as university management in detail. Between 2002 and 2006 she was the Dean of the Faculty of Psychology, and later she was Vice-Principal for Studies and Vice-Principal for Teaching Staff and Academic Planning of the University of Valencia. Therefore, she has experienced closely the situation that the university has had to face during the last years of economic crisis. During the opening speech for the current academic year, the first one she offered as principal of the university, professor Mestre emphasised «the need to regain the autonomy of the university», limited during these years of crisis. Another of the central challenges that she believes public universities will face over the next few years.

Jesús Císcar

The anniversary of your election as the principal of the University of Valencia is approaching. How do you evaluate this first year at the head of the institution?

In just one word: intense. We have worked hard to take forward agreements that will allow us to address the main immediate challenges, and we have laid the groundwork to implement the commitments supported by the university community.

What are, in your opinion, the challenges the University of Valencia will have to face in the next few years?

From the outside perspective, the stability of scientific announcements and the boost of knowledge transfer activities. From an internal point of view, we have to deal with the internationalisation of research and the aging of our employees, with the incorporation of new researchers, taking into account the recovery of emigrated talent.

And regarding the challenges of society, what is the social responsibility of the university in the face of urgent, complex and multidisciplinary problems such as climate change?

First of all, we have a scientific responsibility: we must produce knowledge to face this challenge. And in addition, we have a responsibility towards science dissemination, to build social awareness. Finally, we also have a political responsibility: to be at the service of the governments’ demands in order to support relevant actions. All this without forgetting our responsibility as an organisation.

«We have to make all possible efforts to ensure that motherhood does not imply a decrease in future academic progress opportunities»

With you, there are currently seven female principals in charge of public universities, as opposed to forty-three male principals. It is still a low percentage, but it means an important change, because there have only been seven more female principals since 1982. What do you think about this?

I think we are at a social crossroads in which several aspects begin to be take effect. On the one hand, the work carried out by the feminist movement over many decades and, on the other hand, a generational change of women demanding effective equality and a step forward in society. But when I speak of a crossroads, it is because society is also facing the opposite situation: the presence of people who reject effective equality in real terms and who use verbal subterfuge which actually hides a patriarchal position that seemed to be already extinct from the public domain.

It is true that in the last year, since the demonstrations of 8 March 2018, something seems to have changed, and society is more receptive to feminist demands. What are the challenges in equality that science must face?

On the one hand, between students of both genders, effective equality in the fields of knowledge, without prejudice. On the other hand, the academic progress of more women, reducing the differences in the hierarchical positions.

Jesús Císcar

How can we deal with gender stereotypes in the different fields of knowledge? There are still disciplines such as physics or engineering in which men continue to be a majority.

With a lot of education, effort, and social dialogue. We have to break down and reject those stereotypes.

Last summer, the campaign #oCientíficaoMadre («Either a scientist or a mother») was launched, in which a professor of the University of Valencia took part to denounce the difficulties faced by researchers after being mothers. To what extent do you think maternity affects scientific careers?

When I speak about women’s academic progress, this question is key: scientific progress comes to a halt, as does professional progress outside the academic domain, for many women who take the decision of becoming a mother. We have to make all possible efforts to ensure that motherhood does not imply a decrease in future academic progress opportunities or have negative effects on their scientific career.

«We have to deal with the internationalisation of research and the recovery of emigrated talent»

During the election campaign to the office of the principal, you pointed out that you had lived the most difficult years of public universities due to the economic crisis and the cutbacks in the public sector. What are the consequences of this period of crisis for the university and for science?

I still would not dare to say that we have passed the most difficult years, because there are measures that have not yet been revoked, for example, the rate of staff replacement. Therefore, we are starting to emerge from this dark stage, but we are not yet in a position to say that we have returned to normality and to make a real balance of the effects. Some of the consequences have been obstacles to professional careers and lines of research, and also that we have moved a whole generation – or rather two – away from access to the academic career, so generations have been sentenced to scientific emigration or, directly, not to develop an academic career. On the other hand, the effects on university autonomy are still devastating: we do not have the capacity to make long-term plans because we are not able to know what resources we can count on in the future. Therefore, everything we are doing is based on prudence and restrictions that are still active. But I would like to finish with a positive message: we are moving forward, we have recovered the dialogue with state, regional and local governments, which are also very limited.

Jesús Císcar

One of the main problems those people who started their scientific career have to face is job insecurity: temporariness, lack of contracts, low wages, etc. How does this affect research?

As I have said, in a very negative way: it is hard not being able to give opportunities, or that these do not allow to push a vital project forward. We have to give recognition to the commitment of the people who begin a scientific career in the current context in which it is not possible to know if one will be able to progress in a system that, in addition, offers low fees while the rental price increases. All this greatly restricts not only autonomy, but also confidence and personal hopes.

This insecurity means that many researchers have had to look for alternatives abroad. Can our public system afford to educate good researchers and then lose them?

We cannot afford it, neither socially nor economically. Even those who defend more neoliberal stances should be aware of the inefficiency of having a high quality university system as the one we have – according to international parameters, given the scarce resources in comparative terms with other university systems –, which is highly efficient, and that the result of this effort made by so many people has no impact on the structures of our own territory, but on other countries, which benefit from the investments of our social model.

The Spanish scientific community has received with optimism the creation of a new Ministry of Science, Innovation and Universities, and the fact that it is led by someone like Pedro Duque, an expert from within the scientific system. What is your perception of this change? What do you expect from the new ministry?

I believe that the new ministry has a lot of enthusiasm and its creation responds to specific needs of the current Spanish society. In this sense, I am very positive, but we must be aware of the weakness of the current government’s parliamentary weakness, which can greatly restrict its power of action, starting with the difficulty of approving the country’s budget. We hope that the new ministry will begin a path of dialogue, which has been impossible so far, and that it will coordinate the government’s action with other ministries in order to cope with the removal of the rate of staff replacement, the creation of new contractual figures in the university system and the establishment of internationally comparable salary standards – including flexibility in hiring capacity to regain the exiled talent – the streamlining of public grant calls for research, the regulation of differences in university fees, the recovery of the level of ministerial grants, and the internationalisation of the university for all groups.

«It is dangerous to see that some of these extreme positions are directed against the scientific paradigm»

Pedro Duque has been very vocal against pseudoscience. It is true that in recent years we seem to be witnessing a certain growth of homeopathy or the anti-vaccination movement. What do you think of such anti-scientific stances? Can they be a hindrance to scientific progress?

Throughout history, there have always been trends which are contrary to scientific progress. However, I think that from the university community we assumed these behaviours had been overcome in the context of our present knowledge-based society. It is dangerous to see not only how polarisation affects societies, but the fact that some of these extreme positions are directed against the scientific paradigm, inasmuch as these trends of thought fit into political positions, they can take the power to govern and, therefore, to make policy. Also, it can be a hindrance if these anti-scientific stances extend their message massively, and so, contribute to damaging scientific activity’s reputation.

Jesús Císcar

Do you believe the university must play an active role in the dissemination of science in response to these positions?

Of course. This is why scientific dissemination has to focus not only on the knowledge generated, but also on the dissemination of scientific methodology, and on rigour on the reception and processing of information. If we do science but we are not able to disseminate it, we are only halfway there. It is fundamental to transmit scientific advances to society and know how to reach out to different kinds of audiences. The information that we provide to a group of researchers about a scientific result, and the dissemination to school children, are not the same. Dissemination is key to educating people and informing them. The existence of misinformed people is the worst scenario, because they will be very easily manipulated and incapable of making decisions autonomously. Freedom can only be fully exercised when necessary information is available, and it can be contrasted to take decisions on its basis. And in this sense, dissemination, which I understand as information and education, has to reach all audiences.

«Scientific dissemination has to focus not only on the knowledge generated, but also on the dissemination of scientific methodology»

We are celebrating 100 issues of Mètode. What role do you think this journal plays in the dissemination of knowledge?

Mètode is a reference journal due to its contents and design. And that makes it very appealing, because everything from headline to content, design, pictures, etc. catches your attention. Therefore, it is a journal that can reach different audiences. I feel very content as a researcher at the University of Valencia, and now as the principal, to have such a journal to disclose what we do and what is done around the world. I always say we have a very diverse university, and we can transfer everything, but we have to make public what we are capable of doing. And Mètode contributes to that directly.

© Mètode 2019 - 100. The challenges of science - Online only (2019)
Editor-in-chief of Mètode.