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Fifth edition of Leadership Conversations

“Scientists and investors need to sit down to talk: science is the market and the future”

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The fifth edition of Leadership Conversations for Women, Science and Health brought together María Neira, Director of the Department of Public Health and Environment at the World Health Organization (WHO), Rosa Menéndez, President of the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), and Patricia Fernández De Lis, journalist and scientific reporter, moderated by Francisco J. Marco, board director, General Director of Business Support at MAPFRE and a doctor by training.

At the beginning of the event, Marco highlighted that MAPFRE has taken steps to alleviate the effects of the pandemic, dedicating more than 45 million euros in aid for millions of people around the world, as well as the company’s full commitment to promoting talent.

Here are some of the messages that Neira, Director of the Department of Public Health and Environment at the WHO; Rosa Menéndez, President of the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), and Patricia Fernández De Lis, journalist, scientific reporter and founder of Materia, shared during the event.


1. Careers and the gender gap

To begin, they spoke about their respective professional careers and the difficulties they have encountered.

María Neira: “In life, you have to know how to make the most out of the forks in the road.” She confessed that her career path had been the result of “circumstances, because you make decisions. Nothing beats keeping your mind open to alternatives. (…) You take on certain challenges that you hadn’t thought you would. We’re more privileged in the United Nations, because a lot of focus is placed on closing gaps. I’ve seen huge problems in Africa, Asia and Latin America. I’ve worked in very male worlds where girls don’t have the same opportunities I’ve had. When I talk to women, I tell them: Don’t let anyone tell you how far you can go. You can do anything. There’s still a lot of work to be done on the leadership side of things.”

Rosa Menéndez: “I didn’t set out with many actions in mind, I worked really hard and kept an open mind. I was one of the first doctors to go to England. That taught me to swallow my pride: we were no less intelligent in Spain. It taught me to value what I had. This gave me a lot of assurance. I didn’t notice any discrimination for being a woman, but I have to admit that I came to work in the Commission [I was president of the European Carbon Association] because of the quotas. I worked for a week outside Spain and if I told people that I had two children, their reaction would be that it would end in divorce. (…) I have enjoyed everything I have done. Difficulties get forgotten.”

Patricia F. de Lis: “There are already a lot of women in journalism, so I haven’t encountered many problems. Right from the start I focused on technological, economic and scientific journalism. (…) I have been thinking about it and I have encountered difficulties because I’m female. But I can see things are changing. I talk to more and more women, I interview more women. Sometimes we don’t make the most of certain experiences, we put our own obstacles up in our careers. Sometimes, we limit ourselves.”


2. The pandemic and the human factor

Patricia: “It was the worst year of my life. We had to create an online newspaper, remotely, with complex, changing and scary information… Newspapers and uncertainty don’t get on. Very few things have been certain, it has been an extremely difficult year. Scientists work with papers. At the beginning we received studies in their purest form and it was really hard to adapt them to readers. The CSIC and the WHO helped us a lot.”

Rosa: “We faced challenges such as coordinating 120 centers, remote working, and employing the utmost rigor in safety matters. We had to make every effort to fight the coronavirus. We reacted in just one week. We contacted virologists such as Luis Enjuanes and Mariano Esteban, so they could rapidly share their experience within a global health platform, coordinated by Margarita Del Val. We put products on the market, we analyzed the presence of the virus in the air, in the water, we performed genome sequencing… This level of effort isn’t sustainable because humans have their limits.”

María: “I joined the staff in that experience, the responsibility, eyes red from tiredness, the feeling of helplessness.You can’t imagine what it was like at the WHO. It was converted into an operations center. Luckily, they have a very strong Emergency team.I was obsessed with three things: proportion, balance, and context.(…) We have great convening power at the WHO: we are able to work with the best.I am grateful for the intellectual and human generosity of the CSIC and the national centers around the world.How many scientists did we call at 3:00 am in the morning — 9:00 am Geneva time?No-one ever made any excuses.Now we need to address the human factor.”



3. Unequal vaccine distribution, particularly for Latin America

Rosa: “At the CSIC, we are talking with the WHO about leaving some of our vaccines [one is going into the clinical phase this month and there are four other projects]. We are thinking about Africa and Latin America. We must act — due to their historical proximity and their current situation.”

María: “The longer we delay, the more we will lack the necessary technology. The scientific community is joining forces. (…) We can’t draw lessons assuming that the next pandemic will be the same as this one. We need to have a wide platform, to anticipate any type of viral situation, and we need scientists to leave self-assigned roles behind.”



4. Accuracy, journalism and the fight against disinformation (fake news)

Patricia: “We’ve seen the best and worst of humankind. The generosity, the work and the peace of mind for those of us who have been vaccinated. We have witnessed some wonderful things. I am surprised that we have received vaccines in rich countries but that there has been no such peace of mind in other countries such as Latin America or Africa. There was a moment of great confusion where political and economic leaders contributed to the spread of fake news. (…) Close collaboration between journalists, science and health managers is essential. The only way to fight fake news is to collaborate, not isolate ourselves again.”

Rosa: “How can we fight fake news, which can have counterproductive effects? With good professionals. We must reject anything that is inaccurate.”


5. Conclusions

In terms of the role Spanish science plays in the international sphere, Rosa Menéndez stressed that “Spain is known, recognized and well positioned.”

María Neira: “Spanish people have to believe in ourselves more. Sometimes the French tease me, with their Caprice des Dieux (Caprice of the Gods) cheese, which sounds so different from the Asturian Afuega’l Pitu cheese (which translates as “drowning the rooster”).”

They also addressed the need for companies to invest more in science, and in fostering public-private collaboration.

Rosa Menéndez: “Despite much groundwork, many goals have not been achieved. If someone were willing to invest to move from the prototype phase, we would see better results. That is why everything you hear about MAPFRE…. Science is the industry of the future. (…) The CISC issued the most patents last year (more than 100), but we lack that drive.”

On how to promote science more, María Neira recommended “getting investors and scientists to sit down to talk every three months. Science is the market and the future. Recovery is going to be green and positive.”

Patricia Fernández: “I hope we have learned our lesson. Science saves lives and provides us with a future. Years ago we didn’t know it existed and now most of us are vaccinated. I don’t know if we are fully aware of what we have been through, how privileged we are.”

Rosa Menéndez: “And we should also focus on education. It is very important, like culture. A well-educated society has the ability to make distinctions. This country needs more scientific culture. That’s where we women come in.”


Related articles:

Interview with María Neira, director of the Department of Public Health and Environment at the World Health Organization (WHO)

MAPFRE donates 5 million euros to the CSIC to accelerate research on COVID-19