Photo: Eduardo Sicilia, Minister of Science, Universities and Innovation for the Community of Madrid. Credit: Eduardo Sicilia.

By Patricia R. Guevara

If there is one autonomous community in Spain that is constantly in the spotlight for its management of the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19), it is Madrid. However, beyond short-term solutions, we need to start looking to the future in order to prepare for other possible crises. We must use research and knowledge look to the future. This is according to the Minister of Science, Universities and Innovation for the Community of Madrid, Eduardo Sicilia, who stresses the importance of investing in R&D&I.

Madrid is already home to powerful research centres, scientific talent and large universities, but their results can’t be passed on to society and the economy without an adequate transfer of knowledge between the academic and business worlds. Sicilia explains the next steps the community must take to promote this, the role of university learning in today's world and the technological landscape that is emerging from the post-COVID-19 world.

In 2020, one of the MIT Technology Review’s most significant technological advances has been hyper-personalised medicine for the development of drugs that are tailored to each patient. What technology is the Community of Madrid working on? 

We have to rely heavily on the strong industries that we have already excelled in and build from there. In Madrid, we have very powerful health research centres. In the same way that we made great progress in genetics and the understanding of our DNA last century, the 21st century is one of technology and neuroscience. Understanding our brain is crucial.

Madrid is also strong in ecological transition. We have one of the best research centres, the IMDEA Agua [Institute of Madrid for Advanced Studies] and the Canal de Isabel II. Many desert civilisations hire us to learn how to purify water and we have very powerful microbiology-based technology.

In the face of the pandemic, it may be difficult to understand why we should be concentrating efforts on technologies that don’t appear, a priori, to be health related. Ultimately, however, all research has an impact on other fields, such as 5G and AI on telemedicine.

Absolutely. For example, with 5G, IMDEA Software has a partnership with four European countries that are developing prototypes of ambulances that can use this technology. We have also just sent an artificial intelligence [AI] project to Europe. I think that AI has been one of the major forgotten technologies during the pandemic. It could allow us to make better use of all the data we have at a regional, national and global level.

“AI has been one of the major forgotten technologies of the pandemic.”

The pandemic is a very clear example of how important science is, because today it’s a health crisis but tomorrow it could be an ecological crisis, and after that a social, economic or industrial crisis… It is important to have basic science that leads to the transfer of resources to any sector.

So, will Madrid's innovation ecosystem support the crisis economically?

Yes, we must rely on expert knowledge and research to support us through this crisis. These are the areas that will strengthen any investment you make. Scientists say that for every euro you invest in science, you make four contributions to society. It has been proven that the countries that are currently at the forefront of development are the ones that do research. Countries don’t do research because they are wealthy, they are wealthy because they do research.

“If we had invested in science earlier, coronavirus would have been far more easily resolved.”

Right now, strategies are in place that are pure expenditure with little return because specific sectors need the support, but this will not need to happen in the future. We have to choose to make long-term investments in knowledge and technology-based industries. We have already learned that if we had invested in science earlier, we would have solved many more issues in relation to the pandemic today.

Since we are talking about investment, the latest data from the INE shows that the Community of Madrid is the region that invests second to most in R&D as a proportion to its internal GDP: 1.7%. How are you continuing to improve on that percentage? 

We are working on negotiating end-of-year budgets for the Community of Madrid, so that they include a major commitment to science. This agreement involves social agents, universities, research centres and politicians, and investment in both public and private research is high on the agenda. We have to generate measures to ensure that the business world is aware of the need to invest more in R&D&I.

Photo: The Minister, who is visiting the University of Alcalá in the image, is committed to knowledge transfer, security and the promotion of technology. Credit: Eduardo Sicilia.

How can there be a transfer of knowledge between this private business ecosystem and the universities and research centres?

The big opportunity in the Community of Madrid is that, for the first time, three major worlds are coming together in this region: science and research, universities and business innovation. We are looking for ways to turn this into a large ecosystem.

“Basic research must listen to the future needs of society”

Up until now, scientists have been more focused on basic science without giving any thought as to how to apply it to the market; companies need solutions, but don't realise that they have the necessary R&D&I and experts at their disposable; universities develop theories and knowledge, but don’t transmit it quickly enough.

This has to change: basic research must listen to the future needs of society and research centres must collaborate more with the business world.

If this communication occurred earlier in the chain, when the company first expresses their need, would university studies be more adaptable to the constantly changing world of work?

This is effectively why it’s becoming more flexible; degrees are emerging that are shorter and more adaptable to the demands of companies. In the past, you would have trained for five years in order to earn a living for 40 years. This is no longer the case: you study for 18 months but will be constantly refreshing your skills and learning more because the world is ever changing. Therefore, we learn for a lifetime and must maintain a healthy relationship with our studies.

What role does the “Ley de Sociedad del Aprendizaje” that you are developing play in this?  

It is not just an individual who has to learn, society as a whole, organisations and institutions do too. A region can only move forwards if its society moves forwards, a society can only move forwards if it learns, and in order to do so, the learning must correlate. With this act, our aim is to protect this learning and obtain a framework for the rules of play. We will analyse the contents of this framework through a series of 18 workshops with a group of experts and will debate it at the end of the year.

What are the essential skills to train students in at the moment?

Communication is absolutely essential for any technical area. Having negotiation skills is tremendously relevant and also knowing how to manage people; it's something they are going to have to do, even in a lab.

“We need an equal amount of both engineers and poets”

Up until now, the worlds of science and literature have been worlds apart, but we need an equal amount of both engineers and poets. Life demands that we learn both and bring them closer together. Our public universities are already including certain components of the humanities across all degrees, and soft skills in engineering and physics careers.

In addition to all this cultural change, universities must also be undergoing a technological change, especially at the moment whilst courses are being run under a blended learning model. To what extent has coronavirus accelerated digitalisation?

When everything first blew up, the entire university system in Madrid, including 14 universities, physically closed and 350,000 people went home within 48 hours. This forced us to respond quickly by moving classes to a digital format. However, the transformation needs to be more profound: the entire system needs to be digitalised, not just the content.

For this, we propose three major transformations: of teaching, with collaborative learning and digital pedagogy; of research, with the aforementioned link to businesses and its infrastructures; and in the organisation itself, where external voices are also listened to much more.

“The transformation of the university requires digitalising the whole system, not just the content”

Of course, the role of technology, such as robotics and digital stimulation is also vital to all of this. For example, a university in Madrid has started to replace corpses with digital display tables that give the same user experience as dissecting a real one.

Photo: Sicilia sees first had the latest technological advances at the Alfonso X el Sabio University in Madrid. Credit: Eduardo Sicilia.

In a lot of cases, these face-to-face placements are essential, especially in health careers, such as nursing or physiotherapy, and in teaching. How are you going to resolve this?

Placements are the number one priority, they are non-negotiable. We have identified that in a world in which at any given time we may have our mobility put under restrictions, the most valuable practices must remain sacred. Despite hospitals being full of stress, people and risk, placements are still being carried out because there are some things that can’t be taught or learned in the same way as on the job.

All the topics discussed, university, science, technology, innovation, research and the business world, come together at the hackathon #VencealVirus that was organised a few months ago for students, researchers and innovators to propose solutions to COVID-19 challenges. More than 300 projects were presented, ranging from ideas as varied as applications for communication between neighbours and digital funerals. How do you evaluate the results?

It was an experience that we were particularly fond of, we did it because we didn't know we could. We were in a critical position and the result was fantastic. For the first time, a doctor and an engineer, a lawyer and a biologist, a public university with its opponent, a private university and a public one, all came together. More than 8,000 people participated, and the initiative is still going today: we have four or five projects that are currently live; companies have been interested and some ideas have resulted in different solutions.

Through this process we have seen that by working with the council, we can generate confidence in society. We have the ability to mobilise talented people who are willing to invest their time and creativity, and we can continue to make wonderful things happen. This is the ecosystem: when there is a common purpose, societies interest comes above individual interest.

Published by OPINNO © 2022 MIT TECHNOLOGY REVIEW spanish edition