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Put the world in agreement through science | Talent on board

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In the middle of the Cold War, with the world hanging by a thread, 12 countries signed the Antarctic Treaty to protect one of the last virgin places on the planet: Antarctica, a territory run by seals and polar bears that in 1959 became a center of collaborative scientific research, open to all nations. For the biologist Marga Gual (Palma de Mallorca, 1984), who six decades later set foot on this frozen continent, this treaty is the first example of scientific diplomacy in history: “It is a symbol of how science rose above the times. . “Countries put aside their political rivalries to save the only pristine space we have left.”

Gual, a scientist who jumped from the laboratory to the organizations where international policies are brewed, understands that the best and most lasting agreements are those that are built on proven, irrefutable bases. Those that science provides: “Scientific diplomacy uses a common heritage so that countries can find joint solutions,” she explains. If yesterday’s battlefields were the ozone layer and Antarctica, today’s battlefields are climate change, artificial intelligence, quantum computers or neuro-rights. For this reason, she emphasizes, diplomacy can no longer occur only between countries: “It has to expand to encompass new actors and adapt to the speed of scientific advances.”

Marga Gual, at the first European Conference on Scientific Diplomacy, held in December 2023 and sponsored by the Council of the European Union. Photos: MARGA GUAL

Launch of the Open Quantum Institute last March, a project designed by GESDA, where Gual works, and in collaboration with CERN (European Organization for Nuclear Research, in Spanish).

The 100 members of the Homeward Bound expedition to Antarctica, in which the Mallorcan scientist was present, in November 2019.

Gual, during the GESDA conference in Geneva (Switzerland) in 2023.

Question: We have gone through the warmest winter in our history. What wakes you up?

Answer: Five years ago I felt climate change in Antarctica. Five years later, I think we can all say that we have touched climate change in a very tangible way, be it through floods, fires, heat, the winter you are talking about… And I think there is a lack of decision-making and action mechanisms on a planetary scale. , which are precisely what scientific diplomacy provides.

Q. Until recently there was no National Scientific Advisory Office in Moncloa. Why is your profession still so unknown?

R. Diplomacy, for many years, has been nourished by science, but without having given it any framework. And it is a practice that has given many achievements in history, but without a name and without a label. In reality, science and diplomacy do not contradict each other, but are closely linked and need each other.

Q. How do you explain what you do?

R. I am dedicated to promoting, in some way, this collaboration between science and diplomacy. And to eliminate those preconceptions that separate both worlds. But if you ask my mother she will tell you that I go to meetings and talk. And my grandmother carries a laminated interview of mine that she hands out when they ask her what I do (laughs). But yes, they are proud.

P. Can a teenager convince his parents to change their heating to solar panels as scientific diplomacy? Does it occur in everyday life?

R. Yes, it is not just a high-level exercise. It has a very important social part. Sometimes it is a somewhat abstract, mysterious and unknown concept, but any agreement has to be brought down to day-to-day life and needs citizen acceptance, as, for example, happens with the energy transition. And as a society, it seems essential to me that we elect leaders who believe not only in science, but in science-based politics.

MY DEFINITION OF TALENT

“It is a combination between what moves you since you were little, your training and what you learn along the path. “We have to see ourselves as lifelong learners.”

Q. Why can’t we exceed two degrees of planetary warming? Who sets that limit?

R. There are those who may ask: ‘And why two degrees and not two and a half?’. But these two degrees are the evidence provided to us by the world’s scientists, in this case the IPCC (an international panel dedicated to climate change and dependent on the United Nations), so that countries can align their positions and reach joint solutions. And we have seen its usefulness with the pandemic, against which you cannot build walls or bomb. Most of the challenges that come have a scientific basis and do not have, for example, military solutions.

Marga Gual graduated in Biology from the University of Barcelona and then traveled to Australia to pursue a doctorate in Molecular Biosciences at the University of Queensland. She spent five years scrutinizing a protein linked to different types of cancer to find potential therapeutic targets. “Science is sometimes slow. It is built step by step. I wanted something more immediate,” she explains. In 2013 she joined the United Nations as an intern, where she worked for “the inclusion of science in the drafting of the Sustainable Development Goals,” a time when Barack Obama, the then president of the United States, began to send scientific ambassadors to approach to opposing countries such as Iran, Cuba or North Korea. A few years earlier, in 2010, the American Association for the Advancement of Science had published the first theoretical framework of this professional field. Scientific diplomacy was emerging.

P. Why this change of scenery?

R. I was finishing my PhD and a little frustrated by being in that dark room, with my microscope, my cells and my proteins. Meanwhile, a vital agenda for the next 20 years of the world’s future (the 2030 Agenda) was being built without counting on scientists. I went on the website of organizations like the UN and there was not a single profile. That sparked my curiosity and that’s when I entered the world of diplomacy.

P. A somewhat old image of diplomacy survives. Was it what she expected?

R. I dropped a lot of myths. It is not the glamorous world of cocktails that we are sometimes portrayed as. You realize that it is an extremely bureaucratic job, not at all romantic. It requires 200 countries to reach a consensus. And an international organization can only make recommendations, you cannot force anything. That is the great misunderstanding of international diplomacy.

The achievements of scientific diplomacy

The Antarctic Treaty, signed among others by the United States and the former Soviet Union, enemies at the time, turned Antarctica (in the image) in 1959 into a research center governed by science, collaborative and open to any nation. “It is one of the milestones of scientific diplomacy before the concept even existed,” defines Gual.

Photo: Galen Rowell/GETTY

Signed in 1987, the Montreal Protocol ordered the reduction of production and consumption of CFC gases, which cause the ozone layer hole. “The first universally ratified protocol. The perfect triangulation between science, diplomacy and industry,” describes the scientist. Almost 40 years later, the layer that covers the earth is practically recovered.

Photo: Michal Balada/GETTY

One of the great recent successes of climate diplomacy, the Paris Agreement, established in 2016 the obligation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to mitigate climate change. “It was an innovative and tailored agreement. It offered flexibility to member countries to meet the objectives,” says Gual.

Foto: studio023/GETTY

In 2019, Gual, the protagonist of this installment of Talent on board, the Iberia project that makes Spanish talent known, She was one of the five Spaniards to set foot in Antarctica with the project of the Australian NGO Homeward Bound, title of a song by Simon & Garfunkel. Since 2020, she has lived in Switzerland and works at GESDA, an organization designed to detect and predict the impact of scientific innovations in fields such as nanotechnology, synthetic biology or artificial intelligence and anticipate their possible pros and cons.

P. In Congress, recently, there was talk of the need to protect the privacy of thoughts. Prevention is better than cure?

R. Yes. Anticipating future scientific advances before they become reality, even if it is in the speculative field, helps us determine, together with all the actors involved, the possible benefits and risks.

P. It works?

R. If we had anticipated what happened with artificial intelligence, perhaps we could have mitigated certain risks, such as the manipulation of images and videos. The same goes for CRISPR, a gene editing technique. Now we have to do it with what is coming, such as synthetic biology, which allows us to create artificial organs, or the cloud seeding, seeding artificial clouds to block the sun and reduce temperatures. We must analyze the possible impact before it is in our hands because then we will not be able to go back, and moratoriums or sanctions are of no use either.


Q. So, do we have to engage in diplomacy with the companies responsible for these advances?

R. New actors must be included. Google or Amazon have more geopolitical power than many countries. What is decided in a start-up can have more global impact than what is decided at the United Nations.

P. And are you already talking to them?

R. We will see more and more examples of technological ambassadors. Denmark was the first country to create this figure. And instead of sending him to the diplomatic capital of a country, she sent him to Silicon Valley. He is the first ambassador who is not appointed to a state but to a group of companies.

P. You got to what you are today by zigzagging. Can a young person train in scientific diplomacy?

R. Although we are beginning to see some specific positions in research centers and international organizations, there are still no careers or training in scientific diplomacy. Anyone who graduates from a doctorate in Theoretical Physics is not prepared to be thrown into an embassy. And the career diplomat has general knowledge of science. Studies that merge both fields must be encouraged.

P. He was born in Mallorca, very close to the sea. Has that influenced you?

R: Clear. I grew up facing the sea and sometimes I think that my house might not exist in a not very long period of time. I have a strong connection with my land, with the Mediterranean. I love diving, for example. And my father taught me how to fish. When I go for a long time without seeing the sea I get homesick. I think it’s something that we islanders carry a little bit within us. Surely this is not scientifically proven, but… that’s how it is.

Talent as a scientist…

Gual wanted to understand the world since she was a child. She was interested in mathematics, physics or chemistry. And she became a scientist by studying Biology. “To know the world you have to know science,” she maintains, “and many times we do not transmit it that way.”

…talent as a diplomat

Instead, he immersed himself in this world after finishing his doctorate and learned as he went. “I followed an unestablished path and made my way. There is an element of serendipity. “It’s about knowing how to identify an opportunity when it passes by you,” he says.

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