A little over a month ago, Diana Morant (Gandía, 1980) assumed the command of the Ministry of Science at a time when, due to or thanks to the pandemic, more and more conversations revolve around science. In the First interview granted since he has been in office, Morant talks about his commitment to the Spanish scientific community and reflects on the impact of the pseudoscientific movement during the pandemic. “The success of the vaccination campaign shows that Spaniards trust science“, wields Morant in a conversation with EL PERIÓDICO.
Minister, what is the biggest challenge you face in this new position?
The challenge is to accompany the country in its great challenges for the future. We want to build a project for a transforming country. That of a greener Spain, more responsible with the planet. A Spain that is more socially and territorially cohesive, more egalitarian, more feminist and more digital. Science and innovation play a fundamental role in this transformation process because they have to guide decision-making.
At the beginning of the pandemic, we saw that nothing was prepared to deal with such an emergency. One year later, is Spanish science better prepared to face the crises of the future?
Yes, we have to admit that we were not prepared for this pandemic. But now we see that an effort has been made to train the system. We started with a lot of uncertainty and that is precisely why a great bet was made on the investigation. In the last year we have experienced a very important industrial transformation. When this pandemic began in Spain, masks, respirators or vaccines were not manufactured and now they are. Right now There are four Spanish companies that participate in the manufacture of vaccines that we all know.
“The success of the vaccine shows that Spaniards trust science”
There has been a lot of talk about Spanish vaccines against covid-19. When do you think we will have a Spanish vaccine on the market?
I think that, first of all, you have to contextualize what vaccine research means. There are currently 325 lines of research open, of which a third, 112, are in the clinical trial phase and only 3% have managed to be approved as a vaccine. For me, whatever research is done, wherever it goes, it is a success. Spain decided to bet on the vaccine from day one. The vaccines that are being investigated seek to improve those that already exist. Hipra’s vaccine, which is currently the most advanced, presents a good response against all variants and, in addition, it is stored at refrigerator temperature, which makes logistics much easier. If clinical trials are successful, the company would have the capacity to produce by the end of the year and we could market a Spanish vaccine in early 2022.
How much has Spain invested in research on covid-19?
In the public sphere, which is only one part of the system, 200 lines of research on covid and 100 industrial training projects have been supported. Spain has invested more than 100 million euros in research on covid-19. A lot of research has been done and this has resulted in publications and articles that have later assisted in decision making. Thanks to scientific evidence, citizens have known what to do and what not to do during the pandemic.
“Spain has invested more than 100 million euros in research on covid-19”
European funds have increased the science budget by 60%. But, beyond this injection of money, is there a plan to guarantee funding in science in the long term?
European funds are going to increase funding at a time when we need a crash plan. But beyond this, we also want to promote structural measures. We need to improve investment in science, both from the public and private sectors, to consolidate this budget increase over time. For that very we will continue working to gather the maximum possible consensus so that the law of science comes forward. Thus, even if the color of the government changes, scientists will have their rights recognized by law.
What is being done to improve the working conditions of Spanish scientists?
Spain is below the European thresholds in terms of the number of scientists and the wage bill, so we have to advance along these two lines. On this, I am going to introduce a phrase from the scientist Margarita Salas, who once said that ‘Spanish science is working miracles‘; valuing the scientific capacity of our country but also portraying the conditions in which scientists work. As well, we want to get the science out of the miracle. We are going to strengthen the infrastructures and research centers both economically and in terms of resources. All this is going to be done through tools that give stability to scientific careers. We are going to continue advancing the law of science, which is also a citizen cry. Citizens demand that we increase investment in science and innovation and that we match European rates. That is the great goal.
“Spain is below the European thresholds in terms of the number of scientists and the wage bill, so we have to advance along these two lines”
What will change if a science law is passed?
We want to draw up a transformative law for improve the scientific career, stop the brain drain, favor the attraction of talent and, as far as possible, rrecover everyone who left due to lack of resources. But we also want to face other challenges. If we talk about equality in science, we see that, on average, the number of women scientists in Spain is higher than in Europe. We have 41% female scientists compared to 34% of the European average. However, we also see that as the scientific career progresses and higher positions are reached, the proportion returns to 75% men and 25% women. We need to understand what is happening so that women do not reach high places and put solutions.
In 2018, the Ministry of Science and the Ministry of Health launched a ‘Plan to protect patients from pseudo-therapies‘. With the arrival of the pandemic, it seems that this roadmap was kept in a drawer. What happened to that project?
Both pseudotherapies and denialism and hoaxes have their breeding ground in the lack of information, so to combat them you have to give correct information to the public. I don’t think the ‘Plan’ [contra las pseudoterapias] has been stopped. During the pandemic, the scientific community and the media have done an amazing job of reporting on science. In the field of pseudo-therapies, we have to continue working to show the public what things are scientifically proven and what things are not. If a treatment or medicine has not undergone any study, has not been shown to be safe, or has no scientific guarantees, it should not be given..
“Both pseudotherapies and denialism and hoaxes have their breeding ground in the lack of information”
The pandemic has sparked a rebound in the pseudoscientific movement. Are you worried about denial, conspiracy and anti-vaccine speech?
The denialist discourse, which puts science in doubt, has had a moment of opportunity because, immersed in the pandemic, it was the topic that was being talked about and in that context they have had the opportunity to strain their message. But [este discurso] it has clearly been dismantled and vastly superseded by information and scientific evidence. We have a country with a very high vaccination rate and that responds to the public’s trust in scientific evidence and science. I feel very proud that the public is trusting so much in science. In the pandemic, information and science have won over hoaxes and misinformation.
“In the pandemic, information and science have won over hoaxes and misinformation”
In these months we have seen certain people who have dedicated themselves to spreading hoaxes about the pandemic, the virus and vaccines. What do you think about these pseudoscience gurus?
These people have portrayed themselves. In many cases his speech has been more of a show than anything else. But I think people have clearly identified that they were on the wrong side. Furthermore, an enormous effort has been made to refute them. Citizens have been especially exemplary in respecting the directions and decisions that were made. Although the scientific evidence changed from one week to the next, the public has accompanied with patience and would even say with enthusiasm the advancement of science. I’d rather stick with that than with the denial message.
In one of her first speeches as a minister, she wanted to thank her family for their support. Any advice your family has given you to deal with this new position?
I remember a phrase my mother sent me: “Your grandfather was a driver and you now have a driver. Even if people look at you differently, you are still the same; simple and normal.” I want to continue being the person who grew up in a simple family and who, thanks to the efforts of his family, has become a minister. That is why I want everyone to have the same opportunities that I have had.
Any message that you would like to send to future generations of Spanish scientists?
A clear message: we need you. Because there will be no future without them and without them. We have it clear. Spain needs to move towards a society that guarantees greater equal opportunities for people, with more social cohesion. A more egalitarian, green and digital society. Only through science and innovation will it be possible to achieve these goals.