The Grand Locus / Life for statistical sciences



Interview with Miguel Beato

Miguel Beato is one of my favourite scientists. We met at the CRG in Barcelona, where we both work and often collaborate. One of the most interesting things about Miguel is that for more than fifty years, he remained a pioneer in the field of steroid hormones. He embraced every scientific revolution and he keeps pushing scientific progress forward with unmatched panache. I figured I would collect some of his thoughts on the future of science and other topics that I enjoy talking with him about.

Guillaume Filion: What do you think has been the most important revolution in science since the beginning of your career?

Miguel Beato: The transition from analysing single events to global events in the cell. Actually, changing the microscope for statistics.

GF: Why is this so important?

MB: Because we can for the first time look at cells, even at organisms. We have a tool to measure changes and variations that was not available before. This is what enables the kind of approach that we all have at CRG. The only way to study processes is to use networks, circuitry of things you know are connected, and try to understand things this way; not in isolation.

GF: And how do you see the future of science in ten or twenty years? What is going to be different?

MB: I suppose that one of the main differences will be the number of scientists. It will increase enormously because many other functions will be replaced by machines. It has already expanded in an incredible way in my life time, by a factor of fifty or so. Because of that, there will be almost only collaborative research. Big groups dividing tasks and coordinating with each other. You see what happens to physics. We are maybe twenty or thirty people working together on a project, they are three thousand... virtually all the community. And I think that the openness of science will also change a lot.

GF: How so?

MB: Science will be much more open, in the sense that people will have access to ongoing projects; not only to published ones.

GF: What makes your think that it will be more open tomorrow than today?

MB: Look at something like bioRxiv. This is very good. I think that because of the number of scientists, it is unavoidable. It has to be like this. It will be like a large network. And I hope that one day there will be no reviewers for papers. The community will review them. Thousands of people looking at your paper will decide how good it is. This is optimal. This would be your paper, not the paper of the reviewers. This is changing enormously now.

GF: Let us talk about you. What is the thing you enjoy the most about science?

MB: The thing I enjoyed the most is reading good papers. There are papers that are aesthetically fantastic, including the ideas and the way they are presented. And then of course, when suddenly, after reading papers and thinking, you come to an idea that you think has not been tested: this excitement. This is actually very important because without this, I would have given up. There is so much frustration in science. When nothing works, when you make no progress. You try again, it still does not work. The collaborators don’t do it right. So... there is a lot of frustration and without this peak of fun and pleasure that you have by reading good papers and by having ideas... I would have given up. But the character of a scientist is to be very stubborn. It is somebody who does not give up that easily.

GF: About that, what is the most important quality that a scientist must have?

MB: Curiosity. It is based on the pleasure of finding or knowing. If getting an answer to a question generates in your brain some kind of pleasure, then this is the kind of curiosity you need. If you don’t have that, you shouldn’t do science. There are other ways of enjoying life. For me, this is a lot of fun when you put an idea to the test and it does not work; you have to find another way... and finally you find it and this is fun! I think that the most important thing to tell younger generations is “If you don’t have fun with science, do something else”.

GF: What is according to you the best system to administrate science?

MB: It is difficult to say... I know only three systems. The Spanish CSIC; this is the worst that I can imagine. You get a position, a table and a chair, and you have to find your way. Then the German university; the second worse because there was no motivation, people are well paid and they don’t care about what they do. And the EMBL model; which is as good as a good tenure track with evaluation. It is based on supporting the people. I mean giving them credit in advance, and then controlling it. You take young people with a project and you support them! This is the best way. The commitment of people to whom you gave credit is what really motivates them to do something.

GF: Why does this work?

MB: It does if you select the right people. It is like an investment. You have to select the right people because they are the ones you are going to support for five years. This is the main function of senior people in an institute: select the right people. And the other thing is not to put too much pressure, otherwise the credit is not real. You shouldn’t put too much pressure to publish. Give them time to demonstrate what they can.

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