Interview with Vladimir de Semir

DESEMIR-portadaDiego Muñoz
For twenty years now you have been directing one of the oldest Masters in science communication, of which you were also a promoter within the Pompeu Fabra University. What made you invest so much on this postgraduate degree?
When I joined the Pompeu Fabra University in 1994 as an associate professor of science communication I already had a long history of more than twelve years as a science communicator, fact that allowed me to create and promote science medicine and the environment in La Vanguardia for years. This close connection between the world of science, its dissemination and society in general enabled me to understand the need for a proper relationship between science and society in all areas. As the Pompeu Fabra University is a young university, whose founding Vice-Chancellor (Enric Argullol) is endowed with great foresight, the opportunity presented itself. We created some unusual structures for a traditional public university and, in addition to the specific module, I created an observatory for the transfer of science to society as well as a professional MA which responded to a new but significant demand from the socioeconomic sphere of society. Proof of this was the financial support that these initiatives had from the beginning. Generalitat de Catalunya and some companies helped implementing these educational objectives. In fact, the studies we started ended up creating a demand that was already latent in the professional and business world linked to scientific research and industry. No doubt it was the right time and place to proceed!

How has science communication education evolved in the last two decades?
I think it is no exaggeration to say that twenty years ago we started almost from nothingness and now there is a real boom of all kinds of conferences, courses, diplomas and master’s degrees where the keys to the many options that exist in the world of scientific, medical and environmental communication are given. And you have to think that when we speak of science communication we are referring to different professional sectors that have a lot in common. These are journalism, institutional or corporate communication and museology. At the Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona we have pioneered in a sector of education that is both comprehensive and cross-disciplinary with a clear objective of providing an educational response to a growing professional demand. Once again: a real boom that has occurred in the past two decades in these different, exciting and relevant areas of the world of communication with very significant and important career opportunities that will continue to grow.

The digital environment has changed the ways of science communication.
We can picture this enormous change if we remember that when we started the master’s we included a subject of new communication technologies in which we gave an e-mail address to students, the first one for most of them, and taught them about the world of gophers – a service that enables the access to information through the Internet via menus- that preceded the link system of hypertext documents of the World Wide Web. Our MA has evolved parallel to the world of science communication to the present easy access to information and its dissemination through multiple ways and media that feed each other and make communication a powerful tool for knowledge transfer and access to culture. Science communication has always been a huge added value for all types of businesses, organizations and institutions which in the digital environment offers an unusual dimension due to its effectiveness: from sheer knowledge transmission to the creation of values, reputation and social relations . Not forgetting that today both information and communication technology enable us to respond more effectively to the increasing demands of our society for transparency and logic.

Given the wide range of new masters available, what do you have to offer?
The MA, a pioneer in its characteristics when it came to be twenty years ago, has always aimed at professional training in all areas involving science communication: journalism, corporate communications and museology. Every academic year the programme is adapted and updated in light of the changes experienced by these sectors, parallel to science itself. The best piece of information we have is precisely the career opportunities our students have had all these years, which have been adapted parallel to the evolution of our social model and the economic situation of the country. Being a highly professional MA and not a strictly academic one we can introduce programmes, research and activities which are closely linked to professional, social and cultural needs and concerns of our society as well as companies and political and administrative institutions. Our main objective is to train experts in mediation between science / technology and society. In order to do this we offer cross-disciplinarity, a good theory and practice balance and a unique group dynamics. It should be noted that 70% of our students are scientists while the other 30% comes from the world of social sciences (journalists, communicators, marketers, sociologists and even philosophers). A cross-disciplinary group dynamic that is enhanced by direct contact with a highly competent faculty, which in addition to academic members (only a few) is made up mainly of working professionals (most of them) representative of the various sectors involved in science communication. This direct contact results in turn in remarkable career opportunities. In short, an excellent and intense working environment that goes beyond the classroom and, in many cases, even beyond the MA itself.

  DESEMIR-lateralDiego Muñoz

«There has to be a proper relationship between science and society in all areas»

«Our master’s has evolved parallel to the world of science communication to the present easy access to information»

«Studenst that come from the scientific sphere understand the need to improve their own communication skills as a strategic complement to their research»

DESEMIR-dinsDiego Muñoz    

Among the successes of this MA, which one would you emphasize?
Besides those already mentioned, I think there are two very important aspects that speak for themselves … Today, twenty years after starting the master’s, we have 37 registered students in total (including both the face-to-face version as well as the online version), a figure that sets a record for these twenty years. On the other hand, the most recent assessments point out that 94% of the students who graduated last year say that they would recommend this postgraduate degree without hesitation.  At the same time it is also very important that in these twenty years we have not lacked financial support from both companies and institutions (first Sandoz, then Novartis and also «La Caixa» Foundation in the last five years). This support has made the MA possible even in times of economic recession. These grants allow us to offer significant reductions in tuition fees and, in addition to these bonuses, the stable agreement we have with La Caixa enables us to organise and consolidate Campus Gutenberg –a summer school held for the last four years at the Pompeu Fabra University in mid-September with remarkable participation figures. There are also many other networking activities, analysis and promotion of communication and scientific culture held ​​throughout the academic year.

The assessment is
According to everything said, we can be satisfied with this long history in which we have trained and launched over 600 students to the professional world. However, it should also be noted that many of them did not pursue a possible career change – I am referring here to those coming from the scientific sphere –on the contrary, often students enrol in the Masters as a learning platform to improve their own work as active scientists, since they understand the need to improve their own communication skills as a strategic complement to their research as well as their duty to give back to society. It should be noted in this respect the important contribution of our very heterogeneous faculty throughout the years. Of course without them all this would not have been possible. The idea and initial spark were both timely and accurate at the time, but its continuity and consolidation has only been made possible thanks to all of them.

What challenges arise for the next twenty years?
Keeping our enthusiasm, efficiency and professionalism and also looking for someone to take over my role as, if I may say it, creator and promoter of the master’s. Professor Gemma Revuelta has been with me for twenty years, first as a student of the first class, then as a partner in the long educational, research and cultural journey of the Pompeu Fabra University around culture and science communication, and now as co-director of the MA. Be that as it may, the managerial and the academic advisory boards as well as the faculty we have consolidated along the years will continue to work together –each one of us from the right place and where we can be more useful– on  achieving the goal of transmitting the skills that make possible what Carl Sagan said: «Whether we will acquire the understanding and wisdom necessary to come to grips with the scientific revelations of the twentieth century will be the most profound challenge of the twenty-first».

By the way, from Galileo to Twitter, how much has the world of science diffusion changed?
Galileo decided to write in the «vernacular» so that everyone could understand him… Today, at a time of theoretically maximum access to culture and knowledge thanks to information and communication technologies, the task of the science communicator is more necessary than ever. I have had a book recently published whose title is Decir la ciencia, (Talking Science), a book in which I make a four century overview from the point of view of science diffusion and journalism. The question is whether the model based on the verification of sources and the efficient transmission of knowledge can survive the ongoing transformation of the profession in which the critical journalist that works as an intermediary tends to be replaced by a mere provider of contents. Today, beyond scientists and journalists, there are many cultural, social, economic and political actors involved in the creation of public opinion. So the real challenge is to make a proper public communication of science. We have many technological tools, but we face the uncertainty of this social communication of science derived from messages and mystifying as well as non-altruistic values. Galileo would now have to overcome greater obstacles than the use of a widely understood language for everyone to really assimilate the discourse of knowledge and reason.

Maria Josep Picó. Environmental journalist. Chair for Scientific Dissemination at the University of Valencia.
© Mètode 2015.

  DESEMIR-llibrePublicacions i Edicions de la Universitat de Barcelona
Cover of Decir la ciencia. Divulgación y periodismo científico de Galileo a Twitter, (Talking Science. Science Diffusion and Journalism from Galileo to Twitter), essay by Vladimir de Semir recently published.

«Today, at a time of theoretically maximum access to culture and knowledge thanks to information and communication technologies, the task of the science communicator is more necessary than ever»

«We have many technological tools, but we face the uncertainty of this social communication of science derived from messages and mystifying as well as non-altruistic values»



© Mètode 2015

Periodista especialitzada en medi ambient i Premi Nacional de Periodisme Ambiental. Càtedra de Divulgació de la Ciència de la Universitat de València.