2020 is testing us - we don't have to get into that too much. And just as it has been a cruel year, dominated by death, fear and economic difficulties, we must also see that we are living in an era of accelerating change in which we are aware, in real time, that science and technology are the driving force behind progress. We are immersed in technological leaps that were unthinkable a year ago, affecting everything, from the way we work to the management of uncertainty - a kind of adaptation to Darwinian change - which has become a conscious habit for survival.
If this year has brought anything positive, it is the enormous effort science has made to work without borders, in an interdisciplinary way and sharing knowledge with the aim of advancing in the cure of the pandemic. We have never spoken so much about medicine, science, epidemiology, vaccines, and the great importance of investing in what really makes a country thrive, which is knowledge. Covid has put the focus on science and science has proven its usefulness. Just as, on the other hand - if I may digress - the European Union has demonstrated the usefulness of cooperation with the joint purchasing capacity for vaccines and the ability to react to a devastating economic crisis.
When science prevails in the space of public conversation - as we also do today in the dossier on the enigmas of the brain - we could also take advantage of it to learn a way of thinking that contrasts with so many comfortable and useless great political certainties. If in politics doubt does not exist, at least on the scene, in scientific thought observation, objectivity and doubt are the essential conditions for progress.
THE USEFULNESS OF IGNORANCE
In The meaning of it all, one of the most brilliant and provocative scientists of the 20th century, Richard P. Feynman, writes: "It is of the utmost importance, in order to progress, that we recognize ignorance and doubt. It is because we have doubts that we then propose to look in a new direction to find new ideas. The degree of development of science is not measured by observations alone but by the degree to which you create new things to test". In fact, scientific knowledge that transforms us and makes us progress these days in the fight against covid or Alzheimer's is a body of statements with varying degrees of certainty. Scientists are used to it. "We know that it is consistent to live without knowing", Feynman says. "Some people say, 'How can you live without knowing?' I don't understand what they mean. I always live without knowing. It's easy".
THE FREEDOM TO DOUBT
The freedom to doubt is important in science and we should export it to other fields in order to be able to cooperate. The satisfying philosophy of ignorance and progress that doubt signifies does not have to be frightening, it is of great value and it is the seed of knowledge and, therefore, of progress.
Knowledge takes the central place it deserves when things go wrong, and these days we have had both good and bad news. The good news is that seven boys and three girls who are studying biomedical engineering at Pompeu Fabra University (UPF) have just won an international competition in Boston to generate "the best genetic machine in the world". In seven months they have designed and executed Hormonic, a technique to treat hypothyroidism. But these young people are an exception in our system and we have also had some bad news that should concern us. The 2019 International Mathematics and Science Trends Study (TIMSS) shows that the performance of Catalan primary school children has declined since 2015 and is back to 2011 levels. Specifically, five years ago, 9- and 10-year-old schoolchildren scored 511 points in science, and now they have dropped to 504. In mathematics they have gone from 499 points to 494. The results are taken from tests that the OECD takes every four years to evaluate the level of primary school students in subjects closely related to economic progress. The results of Catalan schoolchildren are not only far from the OECD average, but also below the Spanish average.
WHICH COUNTRY DO WE WANT?
We must be aware that education, research and knowledge are the foundations of a country's prosperity. There is no doubt about this, nor about the need to make teaching and research an absolute priority if we want to have a competitive country capable of catching up with the present. Our economy cannot be a monoculture of services if we want to grow, move forward and give youngsters a future that does not involve a talent drain. This is more than ever the time for science, and if the country wants to continue growing as an international pole of biomedicine and research in general, we will have to be able to make this a shared priority.