Author Archive

The IFT Youtube channel receives the Silver Play Button award

The IFT Youtube channel holds the Silver Play Button award, a distinction bestowed upon reaching the number of 100000 subscribers

The Youtube channel of the Instituto de Física Teórica (IFT, a joint research centre of CSIC and the Autonomous University of Madrid, received during March past year the YouTube Silver Play Button award, a distinction which YouTube confers when a channel surpasses the mark of 100,000 subscribers.

The Silver Play Button awarded to the IFT Youtube channel
The Silver Play Button awarded to the IFT Youtube channel

Its still steadily growing channel had, as of April 2018, more than 300,000 subscribers yet, more than 10 million reproductions, with its two most popular videos having more than one million reproductions each. This goes in hand with the steady increase in the number of subscribers and channel views, suggesting that in some future the IFT channel may perhaps obtain the next tier Youtube award: the Youtube Gold Play Button (one million subscribers), just below the equivalent “Diamond” and “Ruby” awards (at ten, and fifty million subscribers, respectively).

IFT is a centre researching at the frontiers of elemental particle physics, astroparticles and cosmology, with the aim to understand the fundamental keys to nature and the universe. Its YouTube channel can boast a wealth of self-produced materials, whereof a series of animation videos elaborated in collaboration with the channel Quantum Fracture stand out. Dark matter, the oscillation of neutrinos or black holes, are among the subjects treated in this partnership. Of this series, the most viewed video is ‘La teoría de cuerdas en 7 minutos’ (‘String theory in seven minutes’), with more than 2.2 million views.

Another of its most popular initiatives is “IFT responde”, where the general public is given the opportunity to ask questions to researchers of the institute, who answer in a video made in an accessible, amusing way. The channel also disseminates conferences, as for instance the cycle on Fundamental Physics which took place at the Residencia de Estudiantes CSIC, as well as other talks of the research personnel of the centre.

Image credit:

IFT Silver Buttom photograph by Susana Hernández, IFT.

New members of SOMMa on board for the first time

Seven centers and six units receive the ‘Severo Ochoa’ and ‘María de Maeztu’ seals of excellence. One centre and two units achieve accreditation for the first time Thirteen cutting-edge Spanish institutions were awarded the “María de Maeztu” or “Severo Ochoa” distinctions of excellence on past call. The total investment of this programme is around 40 million euros: each of the ‘Severo Ochoa’ centres will receive one million euros per year for the next 4 years, while the ‘María de Maeztu’ units will receive around 500,000 euros per year for the same period of time.
  • The Vall d’Hebron Oncology Research Institute (VHIO) has been awarded the ‘Severo Ochoa’ centre of excellence distinction for the first time. The research units selected for the first time in the ‘María de Maeztu’ category are the Institute of Mathematics of the University of Granada (IMAG) and the Institute of Space Sciences (ICE).
  • The ‘Severo Ochoa’ centre of excellence and ‘Maria de Maeztu’ unit of excellence awards aim to finance and accredit research centres and units, in any scientific area, that demonstrate impact and scientific leadership at an international level and that actively collaborate with their social and business environment.
They distinguish organisational structures that have highly competitive, cutting-edge research programmes and are among the best in the world in their respective scientific areas. The evaluation and selection process is carried out independently by an international scientific committee made up of researchers of recognised prestige and impact. The accreditation is valid for four years. At the end of this period, the centres or units may apply for a new call for applications in competitive competition. Four more years of excellence In the 2020 call, seven ‘Severo Ochoa’ centres of excellence and six ‘María de Maeztu’ units of excellence have been distinguished out of the total of 50 applications submitted, 17 centres and 33 units. Four ‘Severo Ochoa’ centres of excellence have renewed their accreditation: the Centre for Genomic Regulation (CRG), the Institute for Theoretical Physics (IFT), the Centre for Plant Biotechnology and Genomics (CBGP) and IMDEA-Nanoscience. In addition, the National Centre for Cardiovascular Research (CNIC) and the Basque Center on Cognition, Brain and Language (BCBL) have also regained this distinction. Three María de Maeztu units of excellence, the CIC-NANOGUNE, the Centre for Monetary and Financial Studies (CEMFI) and the Andalusian Centre for Developmental Biology (CABD), have renewed their distinction. The Centre de Recerca Matemàtica (CRM) also regains its accreditation as a María de Maeztu unit. The requirements, standards, criteria and evaluation and selection procedures for scientific excellence do not differentiate between centres and units, which have been selected for their scientific results and strategic programmes after a rigorous evaluation in which internationally renowned scientists have participated. On the other hand, three non-accredited grants have also been awarded for units close to excellence, for a total amount of 200,000 euros. This funding seeks to support high-impact scientific activities that will enable the centres to improve their position with a view to future calls for proposals. The units selected are the Galician Institute for High Energy Physics (IGFAE), the Mediterranean Institute for Advanced Studies (IMEDEA) and POLYMAT.    

A device for monitoring heart failure from saliva

  • An international team with involvement of ICMAB and IMB-CNM researchers develops a medical device capable of monitoring heart failure from saliva samples.
  • The instrument contains a biosensor chip which teams up with functionalized magnetic nanoparticles in order to detect heart failure-related biomarkers found in saliva.
  • The device, developed in the framework of the European project KardiaTool, can be used as a quick Point-of-Care saliva test that does not require the assistance of any specialized personnel for patient testing.

Heart failure is the main cause of mortality in Western societies. Ischemic heart disease is the main cause of mortality in the world, according to data of the World Health Organization. Since the year 2000, heart failure is also a disease on the rise: data shows that it accounted for 2 million of the global deaths back then, rising up to almost 9 million in 2019, of the close to 17.8 million deceases due to heart disease overall. Some reported estimates suggest that over 120 million patients worldwide may be suffering of ischemic heart disease. In Spain, the Spanish Statistical Office (INE) shows that heart failure-related diseases were the main cause of mortality in Spain until 2020.

For the timely and effective tratment of heart disease, a convenient, realiable and easy to deploy diagnosis method can be key. Currently, the monitoring is done by the quantification of biomarkers in a blood analysis. Addressing this matter, an international research team with participation of the Institute of Materials Science of Barcelona (ICMAB, CSIC) and the Institute of Microelectronics of Barcelona (IMB-CNM) has developed a rapid diagnostic device for the detection of heart failure through saliva samples. Using the developed device for heart failure detection through saliva samples would be a quick, simple to use tool to enhance diagnosis and treatment.

A lab-on-a-chip to detect biomarkers in saliva

The device acts as a portable laboratory able to separate and detect biomarkers in the saliva. It is made of microelectronic systems, integrated sensors, biochemicals and magnetic nanoparticles. It is a quick, low-cost and portable instrument based on nanotechnology to use as a Point-of-Care system to detect heart failure, the main cause of mortality in Europe up until 2019. It is the result of the European project KardiaTool, with published results in the journals Analytica Chimica Acta, Chemosensors and Molecules.

Albert Alcacer IMB-CNM
Albert Alcacer, IMB-CNM researcher, showing the device built at their facilities.

The system contains a microelectronic biosensor based on silicon nitride manufactured in the Clean Room of the Institute of Microelectronics of Barcelona (IMB-CNM, CSIC), the ImmunoFET. It contains an ion selective field effect transistor (ISFET) and is capable of detecting in saliva the presence of tumor necrosis factor-α (TNF-α), a small protein that is one of the biomarkers that indicates heart failure. The team has experimented with artificial and human saliva, demonstrating a high sensitivity to the concentration of TNF-α.

“The biosensor devices are integrated in a lab-on-chip that will allow performing a complete immunoassay for the measurement of the biomarker concentrations”, explains Joan Bausells, PI of the IMB-CNM contribution to the project and NANONEMS group leader. “The use of ISFET devices for the biosensors takes advantage of the intrinsic electronic amplification properties of the transistor to increase the sensitivity,” adds the researcher.

The contribution of the ICMAB focused on the synthesis of the magnetic nanoparticles used in the device: “Since the concentration of the biomarkers in saliva is smaller than in blood, we need to do a pre-concentration. To this end, we use magnetic nanoparticles functionalized with the adequate antibodies, synthesized at ICMAB, that can capture these biomarkers”, says Francesc Teixidor, ICMAB researcher and LMII group leader. “These nanoparticles had to be stable enough to not precipitate and to circulate along the microfluidic channels, a big challenge to overcome!” adds the researcher.

Jewel Ann Maria Xavier, ICMAB researcher, showing a preparation of the magnetic nanoparticles contributed by ICMAB-CSIC.
Jewel Ann Maria Xavier, ICMAB researcher, showing a preparation of the magnetic nanoparticles contributed by ICMAB-CSIC.

“The automatic device developed within the project does not require specialized personnel and is a tool that can rapidly indicate the severity of heart failure condition. We think that it can be very useful to doctors, especially to plan and evaluate the efficacy of the different treatments for the patients”, adds Francesc Teixidor.

A collaboration of 14 European institutions to detect heart failure is part of KardiaTool, an international project funded by the European Commission within the Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation program. It has been granted € 4.9 M since 2018. The project counts with the participation of 14 institutions from 9 European countries including the University Claude Bernard Lyon (UCBL, France), Foundation for Research and Technology Hellas (FORTH, Greece), Spanish National Research Council (CSIC, Spain), University of Pisa (UNIPI, Italy), Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft (Germany), BioTray (France), Micronit Microtechnologies B.V. (Micronit, The Netherlands), IMEC (Belgium), University of Ioannina (UOI, Greece), ValoTec (France), Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche (CNR, Italy), EnaChip Inc. (Enachip, US), University of Surrey (US, UK), University College Dublin (UCD, Ireland). IMB-CNM and ICMAB are the leading CSIC centres involved since the beginning and the sole Spanish contributors to the project.

Image credits:

Research pictures were kindly provided by ICMAB, and re-used with permission.

Plastic additives in muscle tissue of Western Mediterranean Sea turtles

  • Chemical additives associated with plastics are detected for the first time accumulated in the muscles of loggerhead turtles in the Catalan and Balearic coasts.
  • The concentration levels of chemical additives found in the turtles are higher than in other species of marine animals, such as dolphins and whales.
  • This study shows that plastic pollution goes beyond the physical problem of big-size plastic litter, such as fishing nets or plastic bags, to be present on a chemical level.

In the area of plastic production, plasticisers or plastic additives are chemical compounds added to modify polymers, providing greater flexibility, strength, durability or other desirable characteristics. Some commonly used plasticisers include phthalates, organophosphate or aliphatic esters, among others. The applications of plasticisers are relevant in areas such as the production of consumer goods, coated fabrics, cables, film coverings, etc. The global demand for plasticisers follows an upward trend, and is estimated to become a market sized over $18,500 million by 2022, according to published reports.

An individual of the species Caretta caretta after laying eggs on the beach.
An individual of the species Caretta caretta after laying eggs on the beach.

In connection with the widespread use of plasticisers, the Institute of Environmental Assessment and Water Research (IDAEA-CSIC) and the University of Barcelona led a study that shows for the first time the accumulation of chemical additives associated with plastics in the muscle tissues of Mediterranean Sea turtles. Loggerhead turtles (Caretta caretta) is a species of turtle that may ingest floating plastic debris voluntarily, confusing them with prey. As a result, this species is chronically exposed to plastic additives. Alas, little is known about how this reflects in the levels of these compounds in the tissues of turtles.

Organophosphate esters in loggerhead turtles

Samples of the loggerhead turtle (Caretta caretta) were taken between 2014 and 2017 in the Catalan and Balearic Islands coasts (Spain). Organophosphate esters (OPEs) were the chemical compounds studied because some of them are known endocrine disruptors, exhibit neurotoxicity and/or have carcinogenic activity. Plasticisers were found in all of the turtles studied, ranging from 6 to 100 nanograms of OPEs per gram of muscle. Higher values were found in the Balearic turtles, which may be explained by these turtles coming from the Algerian basin, where a greater amount of plastic garbage is found in the sea.

To identify the possible sources of pollution, the diet of the turtles was analysed (jellyfish, squid and sardines), as well as samples of marine garbage that turtles ingest, such as bags, bottle caps and floating plastic fragments. OPE plasticisers were found in all samples. Although most of the compounds were present in the diet, the turtles and the garbage, some of them were only found in the turtles and in the garbage, showing that plastic intake is responsible for the presence of these pollutants in the muscle tissue.

Contribution, in %, of detected organophosphate esters to the total levels in turtles, diet and plastics from Balearic Islands.
Contribution, in %, of detected organophosphate esters to the total levels in turtles, diet and plastics from Balearic Islands.

Although most compounds were present in both the turtles’ prey and in plastic debris, the distribution of plasticisers in loggerhead turtles if compared with these sources was different. Some organophosphate esters (T2IPPP, TPP and TBOEP), were detected in plastic debris and turtle muscle but not in their prey. This suggests that ingestion of plastic debris was the main source for these particular OPEs.

Contrarily, the levels of other OPEs (TEP, DCP, 2IPPDPP or 4IPPDPP) in turtle muscle were much higher than in jellyfish, their main prey, indicating a potential for biomagnification of these particular substances. Biomagnification is taking place if the concentration of the chemical in the animal exceeds the concentration present in its food source (as long as the major exposure route to the substance is the diet of the animal).

The invisible impact of plasticisers

Even though the overall impact of plasticisers in turtles is not well known, what is certain is that these chemical compounds are cause to oxidative stress on any type of cell (including human cells), according to a previous study from IDAEA. The cellular damage OPEs cause accelerates aging and may contribute to the development of diseases such as cancer, Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s.

Loggerhead turtles may ingest plastic matter voluntarily, confusing it with prey, such as these Aurelia aurita jellyfish.
Loggerhead turtles may ingest plastic matter voluntarily, confusing it with prey, such as these Aurelia aurita jellyfish.

Comparing with studies conducted on different marine species, such as whales or dolphins, some differences can be found regarding plasticiser accumulation. For instance, one can find that the levels of chemical additives associated with plastics are higher in loggerhead turtles. As points out the leader of the study Dr. Ethel Eljarrat, “turtles are more exposed to plastic garbage because they ingest macroplastics such as bags, which they confuse with jellyfish, while the ingestion of floating microplastics is more common in other species”.

Eljarrat concludes indicating that “this study shows that plastic pollution not only has an impact at a physical level, when turtles get trapped and choke, but it is also present at a chemical level via the accumulation of pollutants, even though this is not visible to the naked eye”.

Image Credits:

Picture of loggerhead turtle by Luis Cardona provided by IDAEA and re-used with permission.

Figure with detected organophosphate plasticisers provided by IDAEA from the original research article, and re-used with permission.

Aurelia aurita jellyfish picture was downloaded from Flickr and licensed via a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) license.

An algorithm to measure fruit morphology

  • A team at CRAG develops a novel automatized pipeline for comprehensive phenomic analysis of fruit morphology traits to increase plant breeding efficiency in a fast and economical way.
  • The research addresses one of the biggest challenges and opportunities towards increasing the pace of artificial selection and attaining precision agriculture.
  • The developed machine learning algorithm can easily be applied to other fruits like apples, tomatoes and citrus, among others.

As worldwide population continues to grow exponentially and climate change increases drought areas, food production needs to be boosted and optimized. Over the last decades, the increase in fruit food systems’ efficiency –one of the main goals of the International Year of Fruits and Vegetables (IYFV) designated by the UN General Assembly– has been achieved thanks to plant breeding programmes that have benefited from the development of genomic technologies. Nevertheless, plant breeding involves both genomics and phenomics (how the genome in different environments leading to differentiated measurable traits), and automatizing phenomic measurements is one of the biggest challenges and opportunities towards increasing the pace of artificial selection and attaining precision agriculture.

Since fruit appearance critically influences consumer acceptance, with different preferences around the world and between communities, morphological traits such as shape, size and colour are highly relevant in many plant breeding programmes. Characterizing such traits manually is costly and inaccurate, but nowadays hundreds of fruit pictures grown under different environmental conditions can be inexpensively taken, even in the field, to collect objective phenomic information. Therefore, developing new and improved analytical tools capable of automatically transforming this wealth of imaging data into valuable knowledge is key to enhance fruit appearance evaluation.

Strawberry plants are cultivated worldwide for their characteristic red, fleshy fruit.
Strawberry plants are cultivated worldwide for their characteristic red, fleshy fruit.

CRAG researchers have developed an automatized and cost-effective computing method to evaluate fruit shape and colour that will contribute to increase agriculture efficiency. The study, published at the scientific journal Plant Phenomics, has been carried out using strawberry images, although its machine learning algorithm can easily be applied to other fruits like apples, tomatoes and citrus. The devised software pipeline is also able to predict fruit shapes and appearance, providing a powerful simulating tool to design new crosses. The researchers have given open access to the code for the community to adapt it to their own needs.

Implementing deep learning algorithms

In this study, researchers took external and half-cut pictures of about 2000 strawberry fruits from different breeding lines provided by the Planasa company, harvested in the 2018 campaign in Huelva (Spain), the main European strawberry producing area. “Evaluating the shape of a given object, a strawberry in this case, from its picture is not as straightforward as it may seem. Classical linear descriptors –area, perimeter, height, width…– have certain limitations, leading to the loss of relevant information by extremely simplifying morphology features. To better assess shape, we complemented these linear methods with multivariate and deep learning techniques”, explains the first author of the article, Laura M. Zingaretti, who has carried out this work as part of her doctoral thesis at CRAG.

For the first time, this work applies deep learning techniques, a class of machine learning algorithms, to evaluate fruit shape. Combining such methods with lineal and multivariate measurements, researchers were able to generate an automatized software pipeline that analyses shape and colour patterns extracted from strawberry images. The developed tool is quite more automatized than their predecessors as it requires minimal user intervention and limited computer time, providing an inexpensive and fast way for phenomic evaluation.

The researchers involved: Laura M. Zingaretti (first author, centre) and co-directors Amparo Monfort and Miguel Pérez-Enciso.
The researchers involved: Laura M. Zingaretti (first author, centre) and co-directors Amparo Monfort and Miguel Pérez-Enciso.

A tool for improving agricultural efficiency

“In addition to the morphological analysis, our deep learning tool presents a novel idea to simulate new fruit shapes on the computer, since it is capable of predicting the appearance of the fruits of new crosses. This contribution can be very valuable in the first step of breeding programmes, since it would allow evaluating various crosses without the need to test them directly in the field, saving time and resources”, points out Miguel Pérez-Enciso, ICREA researcher at CRAG co-directing the thesis.

Overall, the developed pipeline shows that fruit shape and colour can be quickly and automatically evaluated and are quite heritable, which will allow breeders to rapidly make decisions to modify conformational traits of agricultural products. “This study has a direct impact on the agricultural sector since the algorithms are designed to obtain morphological parameters in an efficient and economical way. Additionally, this tool has the potential to be adapted to measure visual fruit phenomic traits directly in the field, to analyse other plant conformation characteristics (leaves, flowers, roots…), or for early disease assessment”, adds Amparo Monfort, IRTA researcher at CRAG and co-director of the work.

Image credits:

Pictures kindly provided by CRAG, and re-used with permission.

Physics and YouTube: a beacon for the convergence of science and citizens

  • The IFT Youtube channel has received, as of 2021, up to three awards acknowledging its success and impact as a physics dissemination initiative.
  • The initiative ‘IFT Responde’ has become an integral tool for reaching out to citizens, allowing them ask questions and in that way participate of the decision process for new video creation.
  • IFT co-organised the Cultube and Cultube 2.0 events thanks to the growth of their channel and the cooperation with other content creators such as with La Casa Encendida and Google/Youtube.
  • The 2019 edition of Cultube, Cultube 2.0, had the presence and participation of the Minister of Science, Innovation and Universities, Pedro Duque.

The Youtube channel of the Instituto de Física Teórica (IFT, a joint research centre of CSIC and the Autonomous University of Madrid), was launched in the year 2013. Four years later, in 2017, it received the YouTube Silver Play Button award, one of the three existing Youtube Creator Awards –four, if one counts the Ruby “custom” award-. This milestone, granted upon reaching the 100,000-follower mark was a sign of yet more successes still to come after IFT made the strategic decision to support its channel in order to boost its visibility and bring its area of research closer to citizens.

The Silver Play Button awarded to the IFT Youtube channel
The Silver Play Button awarded to the IFT Youtube channel

As a testimony to its success, the steadily growing channel had, as of July 2021, already more than 600,000 subscribers, with an accumulated video reproduction count of nearly 35 million views. The Youtube Gold Play Button, which is awarded upon reaching one million subscribers, comes closer within reach, even more so considering the past evolution of the channel.

The IFT YouTube channel, its activity and its awards

The IFT channel can boast a wealth of self-produced materials (close to 300 pieces of media). Among these, a series of animation videos elaborated in collaboration with the acclaimed channel Quantum Fracture stands out. The subjects treated in this partnership include increasingly popular science topics like dark matter, neutrinos or black holes, among others.

A number of the available videos surpass one million reproductions. Of them, still today one of those launched in partnership with the notorious youtuber Quantum Fracture remains the most viewed. The video, ‘String theory in seven minutes’ (‘La teoría de cuerdas en 7 minutos’ in the Spanish original title), has almost 5 million views as these lines are being written.

The channel quickly became a reference in physics science dissemination in Spanish. In addition to its regular content, the channel hosted another particularly popular initiative: “IFT responde”. At “IFT responde” (“IFT answers”, in English) the general public is addressed (such as in this call by Crespo/Quantum Fracture) in order to find interesting questions for the researchers of the institute to answer. IFT reseachers answer those questions via the following videos keeping, as ever, an accessible, close yet didactic tone. Also cycles of conferences are disseminated via the channel, such as for instance one on Fundamental Physics which took place at the Student Residence of CSIC, along with other talks by IFT research personnel.

'IFT Responde': a sign of identity of the IFT YouTube channel.
‘IFT Responde’: a sign of identity of the IFT YouTube channel.

The content, which keeps building up, has in turn kept attracting the public, as well as the eye of more specialized audiences. Over time, in addition to the Silver Button Award, the journey of the IFT YouTube channel earned it additional honours. During the VIII CPAN Competition in Science Dissemination of the Centro Nacional de Física de Partículas, Astropartículas y Nuclear (CPAN) the channel obtained the jury award in the category for the best science dissemination website. Even a third award came the way of the IFT channel, which obtained a Honorific Mention of the Premio Prismas Casa de las Ciencias to science dissemination in the website/social category, in an event organised by Museos Científicos Coruñeses (Science Museums of Coruña).

IFT and the Spanish YouTube content creator community: Cultube

The growth of the channel also brought about the oportunity to organise two joint events with Quantum Fracture, La Casa Encendida and YouTube/Google: those were Cultube 2018 and 2019. The Cultube 2019 edition (Cultube 2.0) had the presence and participation of the Minister of Science, Innovation and Universities, Pedro Duque. During the event, discussion took place about science communication and dissemination across various disciplines and popular subjects, including musical analysis and critique, movies, TV series, videogames, but also history, health, biomedicine and artificial intelligence.

All the talks at Cultube were streamed live. In them participated ten of the most popular cultural content creators of YouTube in Spanish: El Robot de Platón, Alvinsch, La Hiperactina, Ciencia de Sofá, Preguntas Incómodas, Jordi Maquiavelo, Size Matters, El Cubil de Peter, Glóbulo Azul and DotCSV. If one considers the participants in the first Cultube edition in 2018, IFT has managed to gather a wide representation of some of the most popular cultural and science-related content creators on Spanish Youtube. To the previous ten add: DayoScript, Jaime Altozano, Antonio García Villarán, Ayme Román, C de Ciencia, El Chico Morera, Andreo Rowling, VisualPolitik, La gata de Schrödinger and Antroporama.

Group picture of the Cultube 2.0 participant content creators at the end of the event (snapshot taken with permission of IFT)
Group picture of the Cultube 2.0 participant content creators at the end of the event (snapshot taken with permission of IFT)

In the meantime, the IFT YouTube channel keeps its upward path, making even more contributions towards the dissemination of physics, part of the wider efforts to showcase the value of science and research, and of evidence-based progress. As of today, it seems a matter of time that the IFT YouTube channel earns the next tier of the YouTube Creator Awards, the YouTube Gold Play Button. IFT will increasingly stoutly keep contributing towards the understanding of physics by society at wide.

Image credits:

Google Silver Play Button award picture by Susana Hernández of IFT, and re-used with permission.

All remaining pictures, inclusive the ‘IFT Responde’ banner are snapshots taken with permission of IFT from their channel and videos.

Obtained for the first time the elements needed to simulate a Universal Turing Machine made of water

  • The results of the research show that some phenomena in hydrodynamics are undecidable problems: it is impossible to construct an algorithm always leading to an answer in finite time.
  • The results obtained represent a new manifestation of the turbulent nature of fluid movement.
  • Knowledge from diverse areas of mathematics had to be combined to successfully reach this milestone, involving researchers of ICMAT-CSIC, UPC- BGSMath and UPC-CRM Observatoire de Paris.

In the year 2014, the Australian Fields Medal awardee Terence Tao, notorious for his panoramic, if not comprehensive, view of current mathematics, proposed a new approach towards the famous problem of the Navier-Stokes equations, which describe the movement of fluids.

Motivated by the approach proposed by Tao, a team of researchers of ICMAT-CSIC, UPCBGSMath and UPC-CRM Observatoire de Paris managed for the first time to obtain mathematical solutions of a fluid capable of simulating any Turing machine. The result was published at the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

A Universal Turing water machine

Turing Machines were invented by Alan Turing in the year 1936. A Turing machine is an abstract mathematical construction capable of simulating any algorithm. It takes as input a sequence of binary data (0 or 1 values) and, after a given number of steps, returns another binary string of data as a result. Turing machines have been used, for instance, to show in the past the existence of inherent limitations of mechanical computation.

Representation of a Turing Machine: the machine takes an input from the one side and returns an output from the other.
Representation of a Turing Machine: the machine takes an input from the one side and returns an output from the other.

In this particular development, the fluid studied by the researchers could be considered as a water Universal Turing Machine: it takes as entry data a point in space, processes it -following the trajectory of the fluid through that point- and provides as an output result the next region towards which the fluid has moved. The result is an incompressible 3D fluid without viscosity (Navier-Stokes equations do consider viscosity). This development represents the first time in which a Universal Turing water machine has been successfully designed.

One of the main consequences of the obtained results is that it allows to prove that certain hydrodynamic phenomena are undecidable, meaning that these phenomena cannot be proven/predicted by any algorithm with guarantee of obtaining a result in finite time. A related example is that, if we throw a message in a bottle into the sea, we cannot assure that it will ever reach any specific destination given a finite amount of time. Something alike happened to a large batch of 29000 plastic ducks that fell from a cargo ship during a storm and were lost in the ocean in 1992: nobody could predict where they would appear.

No algorithm exists that can ensure that a certain particle belonging to a fluid will traverse a particular region of space in a finite amount of time. “This impossibility for prediction, which is different to the one established by chaos theory, is a new manifestation of the turbulent behaviour of liquids”, say the researchers.

The impossibility to predict if a fluid will traverse a given region of space is connected with its turbulent nature.
The impossibility to predict if a fluid will traverse a given region of space is connected with its turbulent nature.

“In chaos theory, unpredictability is associated to an extreme sensitivity of the system with regard to starting conditions -a butterfly moving its wings may ultimately be able to originate a tornado- , something that in this case goes even beyond: it is proven that there cannot be an algorithm able to solve the problem, and this is something which is not due to a limitation of our knowledge, but to the mathematical logic itself”, highlight Miranda and Peralta-Salas. This shows the complexity of the behaviour of fluids, which shows itself in numerous fields: from the prediction of atmospheric time to the dynamics in streams and waterfalls, among others.

Regarding its relation with the Navier-Stokes problem, including the list of the seven Millenium Problems of the Clay Foundation, researchers are cautious: “The proposal of Tao is, for now, hypothetical”, they assure. His idea is to use a water computer to force a fluid to accumulate more and more energy in increasingly small regions, until a singularity is formed; that is, a point in which energy becomes infinite. The existence or not of singularities in equations is, precisely, the problem of Navier-Stokes. Nonetheless, “for now it is not known how to do this for Euler or Navier-Stokes equations”, say the scientists, who discussed their results with Tao himself.

From left to right and upwards-downwards: Daniel Peralta, Robert Cardona, Eva Miranda and Francisco Presas.
From left to right and upwards-downwards: Daniel Peralta, Robert Cardona, Eva Miranda and Francisco Presas.

This research started after Eva Miranda, ICREA Academy Professor of the Polytechnic University of Catalonia (UPC)-IMTech, member of the Centre de Recerca Matemàtica (CRM) and the Observatoire de Paris (France), encountered the original publication at one of the related articles at the blog of Prof. Tao, which readily captured her attention. At the time, Miranda was finishing a work with Daniel Peralta-Salas (ICMAT-CSIC) and Robert Cardona (BGSMath-CSIC) about fluids in spaces with boundaries. The team was later expanded with Francisco Presas (ICMAT-CSIC) managing for the first time to construct solutions for a fluid capable of simulating any Turing machine.

The water machine of Cardona, Miranda, Peralta-Salas and Presas -the first one to ever exist-, is guided by the equations of Euler, but its solutions do not have any singularities. For its design, tools from the fields of geometry, topology and dynamical systems developed in the last 30 years have been key. In particular, simplectic and contact geometry, together with fluid dynamics, computation science theory and mathematical logic are combined. “It has cost us more than a year to understand how to connect the various logical threads involved in the demonstration”, conclude the scientists, highlighting the high complexity of this feat.

Image credits:

Model of a Turing Machine was downloaded from Wikipedia and licensed via a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported (CC BY 3.0) license.

Turbulent waters picture was downloaded from Flickr and licensed via a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) license.

Picture of the involved researchers was kindly provided by ICMAT.

Conflict Forecast: a new tool to predict conflict before it happens

  • A tool for the prediction of risk of violence and armed conflict, Conflict Forecast, is developed by Barcelona GSE and University of Cambridge researchers
  • Supervised and unsupervised machine learning approaches on a database of 5 million newspapers enable Conflict Forecast to predict conflict even in nations with little or no track record of instability
  • Conflict Forecast may prove to be an invaluable tool in decision making and international deployment of policies to prevent conflict and its destructive effects

In international news outlets, particularly those addressing matters of geopolitics, news regarding political instability and social unrest make common headlines. It is no wonder that this is so, as events of political and social turmoil or full-blown conflict undermine not only the stability of countries, but put their social fabric under severe stress. In turn, the influence on neighboring countries is another factor not to be overlooked.

In connection with this, researchers Hannes Mueller (IAE-CSIC and Barcelona GSE) and Christopher Rauh (University of Cambridge) have launched a website providing forecasts for outbreaks of violence and escalation into armed conflict. Being able to predict the risk for such events has obvious benefits, notably, to provide a framework for preventive measure decision making. In addition, early warning may prove very valuable to take action in order to prevent situations escalating out of control.

Conflict Forecast: the tool

The predictions of Confict Forecast are based on a database of more than 5 million newspaper articles which are updated continuously. The research team developed their forecast method over the course of more than five years to extract subtle signals from the news, even in low-risk countries without a recent history of conflict.

Street violence, in addition to its negative effects, can have the potential to escalate into a full-blown armed conflict
Street violence, in addition to its negative effects, can have the potential to escalate into a full-blown armed conflict

The website makes the team’s method accessible to a broader public through cutting-edge data visualization tools. It also gathers forecast histories, which are available to practitioners and research teams worldwide. Forecasts are updated regularly and can be downloaded easily from the Conflict Forecast website itself.

The technical details of the framework were published at Reading Between the Lines: Prediction of Political Violence Using Newspaper Text in American Political Science Review, also at the Barcelona GSE Working Paper The Hard Problem of Prediction for Conflict Prevention, with a lay summary available at Barcelona GSE Focus: Can machine learning help policymakers detect conflict?

A technical hurdle overcome by the researchers in this work, which is very much worth highlighting, is the forecast of conflict in countries with a long record of absence of conflict. The low baseline risk of stable countries with little or no history of serious conflict influences the expectations and potential predictions which a model can provide. This problem was overcome by using a large volume of newspaper information via supervised and unsupervised machine learning.

A snapshot of the Conflict Forecast website. One can find further details on the forecast by clicking on each country.
A snapshot of the Conflict Forecast website. One can find further details on the forecast by clicking on each country.

The authors note that forecasts do not provide a causal analysis of the underlying factors of high risk but only produce a warning of that risk. Additional analysis of the specific circumstances is needed to identify ways to address the conflict risk.

The output forecast is to be evaluated to decide on the optimal intervention that needs to be taken to minimize the total cost of conflict plus intervention. This cost-benefit evaluation exercise highlights the potential cost savings of prevention, for which reliable forecasts are a prerequisite.

Being able to prevent severe hazard before it materializes has the potential to yield enormous benefits. Conflict Forecast can provide international decision-makers and country experts with an objective benchmark to mobilize de-escalation and peace processes well in time.

Image credits:

Street riots picture was downloaded from Flickr and licensed via a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license.

Conflict Forecast snapshot reproduced under fair use terms, taken directly at the Conflict Forecast website.

SO/PHI and the first autonomously obtained magnetic map of the Sun

  • SO/PHI, co-developed by the Instituto de Astrofísica de Andalucía, has obtained the first magnetic map of the Sun surface with no human intervention, directly from space
  • The results were included among the first publicly released data obtained by the mission Solar Orbiter developed by ESA in collaboration with NASA

The Solar Orbiter mission, developed by the European Space Agency (ESA) with the participation of NASA, took off towards its orbit around the Sun on February 9th, 2020. The mission was designed to observe the Sun from an unprecedented perspective to study the solar physics and the influence of the Sun in the interplanetary medium.

Some months before the launch the experiment had already obtained its first scientific results, which were to be presented in an open press conference. Among them is the first magnetic map of the Sun obtained from space without any direct human intervention, and which was sent towards Planet Earth by the SO/PHI instrument, co-developed by the Instituto de Astrofísica de Andalucía (IAA-CSIC).

Map of the solar magnetic field, obtained by SO/PHI.
Map of the solar magnetic field, obtained by SO/PHI.

The mission was to extend until November 2021, in which the orbital plane will be elevated in order to acess higher latitutes and which will allow to obtain the first high-quality view of the magnetic field of the poles. During the initial cruise phase, pointed out José Carlos del Toro Iniesta, researcher at IAA-CSIC co-leading the SO/PHI instrument development: “the instruments onboard the ship have not been inactive during the trip: they have been completing the initial setup stage, in which the activity has been focusing on testing that all the complex measurement systems are functioning correctly and, in case of observing any deviations, to find measures to solve or mitigate them”.

The Solar Orbiter orbit around the Sun was planned to have a minimum distance closer to the Sun than that of Mercury and outside of the ecliptic, the plane of Earth’s orbit around the Sun. This disposition would provide for a unique perspective and observe the poles of the Sun. Its instruments, moreover, woult then be able to take both local and remote measurements, which in turn would make possible to provide the first complete view both of Solar physics as that of the Heliosphere.

Solar Orbiter is the first space mission with Spanish leadership in two instruments: the EPD instrument, a detector of energetic particles that is led by the University of Alcalá (Spain) and the University of Kiel (Germany), and the magnetograph PHI, led by the Max Planck institute of Solar System Research (Göttingen, Germany) and IAA-CSIC of Granada.

SO/PHI: When science is done on-flight

SO/PHI (which stands for Solar Orbiter/Polarimetric and Helioseismic Imager) is a generator of polarimetric and heliosismological images whose main objective resides on performing a precise cartography of the magnetic solar field. This field is responsible for virtually all major phenomena one can observe at/from the Sun, such as sunspots, solar storms or solar wind (the continuous flux of electrically charged particles emanating from the Sun, traversing interplanetary space). An objective of SO/PHI is also to measure the speed of plasma in the photosphere, the most internal layer of the solar atmosphere and from where solar winds arise.

SO/PHI was built by an international consortium (45 % German, 42 % Spanish, 10 % French). The Spanish section of the consortium developed, among other systems, the Full Disk Telescope (FDT), with the participation of the National Institute of Aerospace Technology (INTA), the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid, the University of Valencia, the University of Barcelona and the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias, a SOMMa member like IAA-CSIC.

Figure showing several of the maps obtained using the SO/PHI instrument and its technical features and sub-components.
Figure showing several of the maps obtained using the SO/PHI instrument and its technical features and sub-components.

The figure above shows some of the results made available by SO/PHI. The first row displays a detail of the Sun taken with the high-resolution telescope SO/PHI (left box). Next, it shows the mapped magnetic solar field obtained with the high-resolution telescope (middle box), where the green and brown colours represent the two polarities (North and South) of the magnetic field. The right box of the same row shows the solar surface velocity map (right box), in which the areas in red indicate descending movements, while those in blue indicate ascending solar plasma.

The lower row shows an image of the Sun with the full-disk telescope of SO/PHI (left box), followed by a map of the magnetic solar field (middle box) and a map of velocities obtained by the same telescope (right box). “The second row of images of SO/PHI shows the Sun completely both in terms of light intensity as of circular polarization. The Sun is during a period of low activity and no visible structures are observed in the intensity image, but one can observe magnetic structures on the surface of the circular polarization map. For the obtention of the first row of images a high-resolution telescope was used, which allows for more details and allows, from the one side, to clearly distinguish the solar granulation (bubbles of solar gas) and, from the other, provides the first autonomously obtained magnetogram made in space”, indicated José Carlos del Toro Iniesta.

The feature of instrument autonomy is one of the singularities of SO/PHI, made possible by its electronic inverter, the first one in its category developed to date. Instead of sending the original data to Earth, the device allows to perform the science on-board: it transforms the measurements in maps of solar physics magnitudes, erases the first ones to free memory and sends the resulting outcomes towards the operations centre. “Normally, such a map is obtained by a tedious process involving fifty computers on Earth, taking a considerable time”, concludes Toro Iniesta. The results were included in the first data release of the ESA Solar Orbiter mission, in collaboration with NASA.

Image credits:

Frontpage picture of a sunspot is in the public domain and was downloaded from Wikimedia Commons.

All solar maps by SOLAR ORBITER/ PHI/ ESA/ NASA were kindly provided by IAA-CSIC and re-used with permission.

The Spanish network of AI for Condensed Matter Physics: a key player in better understanding AI learning?

The application of Artificial Intelligence (AI) to the scientific domain is expected to have transformative effects across numerous research areas. In particular, Condensed Matter Physics and Materials Science are among the research fields that expectedly will benefit the most from the adoption of new AI techniques. AI as a research topic or as a tool is starting to be adopted by many research groups, but is still not generalized despite its potential to be applied to a variety of problems.

Spanish Network
Spanish Network

From IFIMAC, the Spanish Network of AI for Condensed Matter Physics and Materials Science was launched in January 2020. It is an ongoing initiative coordinated by Jorge Bravo-Abad, IFIMAC researcher and member of the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid (UAM) Theoretical Condensed Matter Physics Department. The network aims at boosting the adoption of AI in Condensed Matter Physics and Materials Science in Spain. The network arises as an initiative to unite all efforts to apply the power of AI to the field of condensed matter physics and materials science.

The Spanish Network of AI for Condensed Matter Physics and Materials Science focuses on three main lines of activity. Firstly, the creation of an on-line platform that gathers and connects Spanish research groups and companies working on the application and development of AI techniques to scientific problems, particularly focusing on Condensed Matter Physics and Materials Science.

Materials science, hence also the areas that are strongly imbricated with it, are among those which can benefit of AI the most.
Materials science, hence also the areas that are strongly imbricated with it, are among those which can benefit of AI the most.

Next, the network aims to develop and maintain an open repository in which the members of the network can share algorithms, codes and databases that can help in the application of AI to scientific problems. Finally, efforts in advocacy and dissemination regarding the use of AI in Condensed Matter Physics and Material Science are to be undertaken, via seminars, training sessions, summer schools and specific outreach activities.

AI: a matter not only about materials science

In the field of AI, new tools are created, and new cross-discipline frameworks are created in which physicists, chemists, ecologists, economists and others are using the same AI tools (perhaps with field-specific particularities). This diversity is also present in materials science itself, also a focus point of the network launched by IFIMAC: quantum computing, material hardness, engineering materials, etc. all work with and benefit from these approaches.

AI skills are increasingly becoming a lever to position professionals from “pure sciences” in the labour market. “They are familiar with the language used in the digital industry. An important aspect is the transition of the language used between people from different areas. The common ground, would be AI and its concepts.” says researcher Jorge Bravo. “Such skills are a lever for career advancement in various industries.”

AI encompasses machine learning, which in turn has deep learning as a powerful sub-field.
AI encompasses machine learning, which in turn has deep learning as a powerful sub-field.

The takeoff of AI, continues Bravo, is almost exclusively due to the development of techniques of deep learning, which can be classified in three groups: supervised learning, which entails learning from labeled data; unsupervised learning, which uses unlabeled data and reinforcement learning, which learns based on feedback from the environment.

Programming, data processing, math and knowledge of the tool ecosystem are foundations which combine with the particular domain knowledge of the scientist, who subsequently applies this to research problems. “In science you often are constrained into a context of working with a small amount of data. AI, integrating specific domain knowledge, can in fact help to operate with few data. This works by integrating the previous insights of a given research field taking them into account in algorithms”, continues Bravo. Such interaction of previous knowledge with AI approaches unlocks improved accuracy, stronger prediction power and potentially the ability to complete far more work in less time.

About AI and the “blackbox problem”

A recurrently discussed problem in the area of AI is the unveiling of how in effect machines “learn”, and what rules they incorporate on basis of their training data. Currently AI algorithms learn as “black boxes” in which it is impossible to know in any detail, even at the mathematical level, what is going on during a deep learning process. This lack of control is problematic as it may yield unexpected and even negatively disruptive results when operating outside the planned work settings.

The participation of numerous neurons in a neural network is what enables the collective to learn.
The participation of numerous neurons in a neural network is what enables the collective to learn.

As an example, a single neuron in a neuronal network cannot in effect learn anything; however, many neuron units learning together can do so, in a collective learning phenomenon that unfortunately cannot currently be tracked in detail. Statistic physics, a branch of condensed matter physics, studies systems in which many units of a given element conform together a new macroscopic entity with emergent properties derived from the collective of individuals.

“Statistic physics is starting to become a tool to understand the deep learning process. This is an unexpected synergy of condensed matter physics with the area of AI as a whole and which may help solve the unknowns of the learning processes of AI algorithms.” The expertise in condensed matter physics could hence play a pivotal role in helping to understand the AI learning process better.

“It is interesting how AI is penetrating manifold discilines in a short period of time, and this it is a very transversal phenomenon. The same language and concepts start to be used by biologists, materials scientists or engineers, which can be an amazing unifying force to facilitate interdisciplinary research. The tools need to be studied, the mindset needs to be picked up as well, and this is surely happening yet at most research centres of excellence. This may open the door to new paradigms of how research is undertaken… this is very unique”, finishes Bravo.

Image credits:

Frontpage AI picture is was downloaded from Flickr and licensed via a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license.

Banner of the Spanish Network of AI for Condensed Matter Physics and Materials Science reproduced with permission of IFIMAC.

Engineering works picture was downloaded from Wikimedia Commons and licensed via a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0) license.

AI diagram kindly provided by Jorge Bravo.

Neural network concept diagram was downloaded from Flickr and licensed via a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license.

Resuscitating eyes to speed up clinical research in vision impairment

  • An international consortium of researchers from five countries proposes a new method to bring eyes back to life for experimental purposes
  • The project has been awarded a sum of over 3.5 million euros to develop a device that will keep donor eyes alive for close to 15 times longer than is currently possible
  • This development is expected to contribute largely to the research of vision ailments including some that currently result in irreversible vision loss

Vision impairment affects over 250 million people worldwide, with thirty-six million of those being blind. Retinal degeneration, which is associated to old age, is often incurable. In connection with this, increasingly ageing populations worldwide will represent major social and economic challenges.

An international consortium of researchers from five countries is developing a new method to bring eyes from dead body donors back to life for clinical research purposes. Coordinated by Pia Cosma at the Centre for Genomic Regulation (CRG), based in Barcelona, the group is creating a device that resuscitates eyes from the deceased.

An eye fundus photo showing intermediate age-related macular degeneration.
An eye fundus photo showing intermediate age-related macular degeneration.

The research group will develop artificial blood to provide cells with oxygen and nutrients, kick-starting the activity of nerve cells and restoring total eye function. Artificial vitreous humour will maintain the ocular pressure of the eye.

ECaBox, eye in a box:

The device, codenamed ECaBox, will be a transparent, cubic box that mimics conditions in the living human eye, maintaining the eye’s temperature and pH levels while avoiding blood clots and removing metabolic waste and toxins. The project has been awarded 3.5 million euros by the European Union’s Future and Emerging Technologies Open research programme, which funds radical new technologies.

Current technological limitations mean that eyes can only be kept at 4ºC for a period of 48 hours before irreversible degradation. This greatly limits their use for experiments, particularly to test the effectiveness of new drugs and treatments.

While advances in human organoids (growing tissues in a petri dish) are successfully mimicking the function of the eye, they fail to encapsulate the eye’s physiological complexity, such as its immune, vasculature, and metabolism systems.

Conceptualization of ECaBox: a transparent, cubic box that mimics conditions in the living human eye for scientific research
Conceptualization of ECaBox: a transparent, cubic box that mimics conditions in the living human eye for scientific research

The new method will circumvent these limitations by reviving eyes and maintaining them healthy for at least one month, helping researchers assess the efficacy, efficiency, and safety of new regenerative therapies and drug testing. Using resuscitated eyes can also bypass several ethical restrictions of preclinical animal testing, as well as human experimentation.

“There are a huge number of potential new treatments and therapies for eye damage and vision loss, but the eyewatering cost of running a clinical trial can mean they never reach the market,” says Pia Cosma, ICREA Research Professor and Group Leader at the Centre for Genomic Regulation (CRG) and coordinator of the project. “Our new method can greatly improve the preclinical validation steps for these treatments, supporting the screening of a larger number of candidates and helping promising drugs escape the ‘valley of death’ imposed by cost-benefit analyses in the pharmaceutical industry.”

Timing and prospects for ECaBox

An early prototype of the device is expected to be built by end of 2023. Upon completion, the group plans to use the device to test their own retinal regenerative therapies pioneered at the CRG. “A theory developed in the late 90s suggests that fusing cells of different types can result in new hybrid cells that can differentiate into specialized retinal cells, but the technology to test how this works in practice has been limited,” says Pia Cosma. “We will use this new device to explore this approach for the first time in human eyes, a therapeutic approach we pioneered at the CRG.”

Sight of the sea, as seen from the PRBB, which houses the facilities of the CRG and other SOMMa members
Sight of the sea, as seen from the PRBB, which houses the facilities of the CRG and other SOMMa members

ECaBox will be created by an interdisciplinary collaboration between seven research centres. In Barcelona, the project will be coordinated by Pia Cosma at the CRG in collaboration with researchers of two other Spanish institutions– Ricardo Casaroli at the University of Barcelona and Núria Montserrat at the SOMMa member institution Institute for Bioengineering of Catalonia (IBEC). International collaborators include King’s College London in the UK, the Association for the Advancement of Tissue Engineering and Cell Based Technologies & Therapies (A4TEC) in Portugal, AFERETICA in Italy and the Bar-Ilan University (BIU) in Israel.

Image credits:

Frontpage picture eye close-up of person looking is in the public domain and was downloaded from Photostock Editor.

Eye fundus by the US National Eye Institute is in the public domain and was downlodaded from Wikimedia Commons.

ECaBox conceptualization picture was kindly provided by CRG and re-used with permission.

Picture of the sea as seen from the PRBB was downlodaded from Flickr and licensed via a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) license.

II Event on Gender Equality of the SOMM alliance

  • On May the 26th took place the second event on Gender Equality of the SOMM alliance, organized by the Institute of Mathematical Sciences for the SOMMa community.
  • International expert Donna Ginther gave her conference  “Women and STEM: Are Differences in Education and Career due to Stereotypes, Interest or Family?” as the central part of the event.
  • María Blasco, Zulema Altamirano and Rosina López-Alonso, each one a leader of scientific or political institutions, debated about the present and future of equality policy in science and research

Presentation of the event

The small representation of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics career (STEM) is a well-known, and long studied phenomenon. This under-representation concentrates particularly in the scientific fields with a higher mathematic load:  geosciences, engineering, economy, maths themselves, computation sciences and physical sciences. It is around this context that developed the “II Event on Gender Equality of the Severo Ocho – María de Maeztu Research Centres and Units”, organized by Institute of Mathematical Sciences (ICMAT) on May the 26th, connecting with the future activity of the recently relaunched Working Group on Gender Balance.

The event was opened by José María Martell, director of ICMAT, together with Maria Blasco, director of the Spanish National Cancer Research Centre (CNIO) and president of SOMMa, and with Ana Bravo, president of the Gender Equality Commission at ICMAT. Martell welcomed the attendees and presented his institution, highlighting the commitment and initiatives undertaken to attain gender equality. Next, diving into the subject of the event, Blasco elaborated further about the actions that made a difference at her research institution. Of note was the creation of a dedicated office, CNIO WISE, that became pivotal in the implementation and follow-up of practical measures, managing to turn many of the numbers, so that currently there are more women than men at the Direction Board, Scientific Advisory Board, as Distinguished Speakers, etc.

Round table: “Equality policies in Science”

The round table gathered Zulema Altamirano, Director of the Unidad de Mujeres y Ciencia (Women and Science unit) of the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation, Rosina López-Alonso Fandiño, Vice President of Organization and Institutional Relacions at the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) and Maria Blasco. The round table (in Spanish) was moderated by journalist and Science Managing Editor at El País, Patricia Fernández de Lis, who kick-started the discussion with questions directed at spurring the participants to share their thoughts. For instance: after many years, it is wondered why gender equality is still a pending matter. How is this possible, what should be done? The conversation started.

The value of being able to change peoples’ minds was brought up: making people identify with the values of gender balance and equality was said to be a powerful lever, something for which being persistent is key. Not only raising awareness was considered important, though. Training not only researchers but also the support personnel to include the gender dimension in their work, it was said, could prove valuable (for instance, during project proposal writing).

Equality policies in Science, with Zulema Altamirano, Rosina Pérez-Alonso & Maria Blasco. Moderation: Patricia Fernández de Lis

The CSIC Women and Science Commission, explained Lopez-Alonso, studies with data the evolution of the number and position of women at the CSIC, as well as the hurdles that they find to access the scientific career and the influencing factors for their success. The number of female researchers at CSIC, she informed, has not increased in the recent times (and has even receded). The exception is a slight increase at the top positions, which is influenced partly by the retirement of senior researchers. On the other hand, currently over 65 % of the positions at the CSIC management team are women, even if less women are accessing the scientific track itself. The importance of obtaining solid goes hand in hand with the taking of specific measures addressing the issues those indicate.

A lower proportion of women start a scientific research career after obtaining their Bachelor’s degree than men. A possible reason proposed is the very demanding nature of the research career and the associated problems with conciliation and personal life. It is highlighted that international mobility of researchers, oftentimes a requirement in the research career, also has personal and professional implications.

Women still abandon the research career more than do men. Maternity and conciliation are big subjects that often remain considered as matters concerning primarily women. This, in turn, affects job expectations, including job stability, flexibility, etc. It is raised that the research system was not originally designed with any significant participation of women, which may influence that its structure is difficult to pair with personal life.

Another subject deemed of importance is managing to have more women reach executive and decision-making positions, so they can help change work environments. Gender stereotypes keep existing, which in some environments, is suggested, may result in women being arbitrarily given less creative, less ambitious or less added-value tasks. The presence of more women in work teams would help avoid some of these situations, that need not be. Transforming the work environments is one way to accelerate change. As a specific measure that will be taken, Altamirano shared that a Gender Equality in R+D+i award is planned to be launched in order to help solidify structural change. Adds Altamirano, dialogue among the actors involved remains as necessary as ever, and it is being undertaken.

The impact of COVID19 was also addressed: it was reminded that the pandemic has clearly decreased the average number of articles published by women. This is an impact driven by the fact that caretaking and family life is still taxing women far more than men. As a result, women still dedicate more hours per day to housekeeping activities, time hence not invested in their career. According to a survey to 1600 people working at Spanish Public Research Organisms (OPIs), 60 % of them women, the mental load and stress also increased significantly during the pandemic. On a positive note, the importance of making visible the contributions of women towards the research in COVID19 was raised, such as the notorious Chinese expert in bat viruses, Shi Zhengli.

On a different note, it was asked, why do less women apply to funding or research position calls? Aspects of gender bias or the scarcity of women in certain fields, among others, are mentioned. A proposal to solve this was to design calls in such a way that it removes the influence of potential gender biases. Still, it is true that a correlation is found between the share of graduate women in a particular field of study and the share of women in that field as researchers. Yet, in all cases the share of women in the area is higher than the share of female Principal Investigators. The difference is even larger if one looks at sheer funding numbers, according to data at CSIC offered again by López-Alonso.

Once more, the importance of the chosen strategies being accompanied of a proper follow-up, reliable data collection and the use of adequate accomplishment indicators is stressed. Next, a round of questions from the attending public follows. One of the contributions indicates that oftentimes gender equality units do not feature personnel with specialized training on the matter, which they compensate with motivation and their personal time. Another problem shared by the public is that it is often hard to find men willing to commit their efforts to these units.

Another observation catching the attention was that in areas with small representation of women some women may inextricably be called a disproportionate amount of times to participate in panels, committees or other situations, such as media appearances. A suggestion was that this additional workload could be considered an additional merit in their CV. The round table closed upon the information by Altamirano that a practical guide will at some point be created and made available to help include the gender dimension in research and innovation settings.

Keynote talk: “Women & STEM: Are Differences in Education & Career due to Stereotypes, Interest or Family?”

Catalina Martinez of ICMAT presented Professor Donna Ginther, Distinguished Professor of Economics and Director of the Institute for Policy & Social Research at the University of Kansas. Ginther started presenting some hypotheses regarding the question at hand, both regarding the choice of majors and of professional careers. The conference followed the path marked by these hypotheses and answers provided by research examining career outcomes and the propensity to study science and mathematics at various stages of education.

Differences in STEM careers, explained Ginther, start long before college and are related to mathematics coursework during middle and high school, the role of bias and of work climate. What could be leading to gender differences in the interest towards STEM careers and degrees? When does the difference start? What happens during the careers of women, after they completed their studies?

First part of the conference by Distinguished Professor Donna Ginther, of the University of Kansas.

Two differentiated areas in STEM can be distinguished: LPS (Life Science, Psychology and Social Science) and GEEMP (Geoscience, Economics, Engineering, Math and Computer Science & Physical Sciences). According to research presented by Ginther, girls received close to 55 % of all the bachelor’s degrees as of 2011, but only 50 % of these were STEM degrees. In turn, less than 30 % of the degrees in STEM were in GEEMP, while those in LPS surpassed 60 %.

Except in Math and computer science, the share of bachelors degrees awarded to women, it was indicated, increased steadily since the seventies. As many as 70 % of the total PhD degrees went to women in the area of psychology, while most other disciplines remained close to or below 50 %. In Math, Computer Sciences and Engineering, the percentage was particularly low, around or below 25 %. Overall, the share of women at senior positions including faculty or tenure positions is lower than the share of women among PhDs. Again, Psychology is the area where women are most represented, also at the most senior positions (just over 50 %).

To understand the STEM gap, stated Ginther, it is important to understand the math gap as well. Connectedly, it is found that girls are less likely to take math-intensive Advanced Placement exams (AP exams). Data shown indicated that about 75000 fewer girls take these exams in STEM, a gap that can be explained by fewer girls taking the AP exams in Calculus, Computer Science and Physics AP exam categories.

In the US and UK, explains Ginther, girls are less likely to appear either at the left or the right tails of the Math score distribution (i.e. less likely to appear at the extremes of the grade scale), meaning that girls were found to be less likely to receive grades either among the top highest scores (right tail) or the bottom lowest scores (left tail) in AP exams, according to the research presented.

Equality policies in Science, with Zulema Altamirano, Rosina Pérez-Alonso & Maria Blasco. Moderation: Patricia Fernández de Lis

Regarding the percentage of female PhDs in a given discipline, work by Ginther and Kahn showed that Mathematics GRE Quantitative Score had a better correlation with the share of women at a given discipline than self-perceived “expectations of brilliance”. This indicated that the share of women at a given discipline could indeed be driven by math. In turn, the higher the math in a given area of research, the lower the share of female PhD researchers.

The differences in math emerge in the US as early as during middle school. Still, those gender differences regarding Math are mutable and can change at different stages of education. Negative influencing factors include stereotype threat or the awareness that some others may expect girls to do poorly in math, which may trigger Math anxiety.

Certain cultural and race factors seemed to play some role as well in the US. In societies where there is more gender equality (such as US New England), the math gap is narrow, while in more traditional states (in the US South), the gap is larger. Another example of these factors is that the performance in the top-tail (top 1 %) of math grades was found to be about equivalent in Asian women and men, while not so in other cases, in which the right-tail distribution increased the ratio of men.

Other factors were further mentioned: girls perform better when competing against other girls and worse where boys outnumbered girls. Women were found less likely to take a guess when there is a penalty involved when missing the correct answer suggesting a higher aversion to risk (Balgiga). Also, when the gender box was checked before US SAT exams, girls were found to do worse in average.

Time was devoted to a study by Lavy and Sand in Israeli primary schools about teacher stereotypical biases. The rationale in this study was that, if significant gender differences were found in national exams if compared with regular course grades, it would imply that there is indeed a bias of teachers in their treatment of boys with regard to girls. The grade distribution asymmetries in those settings showed that that English teachers had a certain bias favouring girls, while Mathematics teachers did so for boys. This could have an impact on professional choices regarding the pursuit of math-intensive careers later on.

While biases influence, Math performance can be influenced by positive intervention, said Ginther: for instance, girls and minorities tend to do better if they are primed before and during the class to perceive that math is something that can be learned (Good, Aronsom and Inzlicht; Bages and Martinot). Also, if a STEM problem is framed as an art problem instead of as a math problem, girls do much better. Hence how problems are framed is a factor that influences the outcome.

A pretty good correspondence was found in the share of girls taking advanced placement exams and the share later following a degree in these areas. The percentage was even higher in the case of psychology. The share of girls who afterwards undertake a PhD decreases in all disciplines, with the exception of Computer Science, where the ratio of females remains stable, just under 20 %. US-born women were found to be less likely to take degrees in STEM when the number of foreign students was higher (Orrenius & Zavodny). Institution characteristics may also influence the share of women majoring in Computer Science (Ginther & Rosenbloom).

In answer to a question posed by an attendee, Ginther reflected that the data provided does not entail that women are worse in math. She said, women entering less math-intensive careers or courses it is not a matter of capability but of preferences, biases, upgrading. Also the family context matters. It is rather about attitude than about aptitude, concluded Ginther.

Focus was shifted towards the professional career. As context, women are more likely to hold senior positions in LPS than in GEMP disciplines. It was asked: is this because they are not hired in those more math-intensive areas? In fields such as Physics, Biology, Chemistry, Civil Engineering, Electrical Engineering and Mathematics, the women that apply are in fact more likely to be offered a position than men, explains Ginther (Ceci and Williams). Hence, in fact, women candidates were over-selected for tenure track faculty positions, in view of the data discussed.

Regarding the salary gap among stem PhDs, including academia and non-academia workers, the gap is of close to 30 % in graduates but of about 17 % in PhDs. Different factors were accounted for: number of working hours, field of study, work experience, etc. Yet, most of the gap could be explained by job characteristics such as for instance that women tend to work less in the higher-paying jobs of the private sector. Still, about 4.5 % of the pay gap remains unexplained, however.

Next, differences in US Federal Research Grants regarding the results of a survey in which researchers were asked whether they had ever received a Federal Grant, how many grants in total they had ever received, and how much cumulative dollar value those represented.

It was found that at research-intensive universities in the US women find no significant disadvantage in securing federal research funding, with the exception of professors in biomedicine (less likely to receive funding). In fact, in the full sample, female faculty researchers were more likely to have received federal funding across all fields studied than men except in math, computer science (no difference) and biomedicine (less likely to receive funding).

On the other hand, women tend to drop out of the labour force or else tend to abandon computer related or IT work much more so than do men. Women are significantly less likely to work in Computer Science than in Engineering. Interestingly, there was no effect of having children on the drop-out of women from the labour force if they worked in Computer Science or Information Technology positions. Other influencing factors were the share of males and of immigrants, both of which could, via cohort crowding effect, be leading to competitive pressure adversely affecting girls’ performance (Kahn and Ginther). In general, having young children reduces the likelihood to continue in the career, unless one works in Computer Science / IT.

Ginther concluded her talk recovering various messages of her presentation. Girls lag behind boys in mathematics interest and performance in the right tail of the maths score distribution. Yet, an early intervention to encourage math achievement could help reverse this, with action being taken as early as elementary school. In addition, the existing way of teaching mathematics may dissuade girls from taking additional math coursework. Teacher bias against girls in math happens early and sets girls on different career paths well before college.

Math self-image starts early, said Ginther, who carried on pointing out that role models are important both for college and major choice (Carrell, Page & West) and that more women are needed in academic STEM careers if one aims to increase the overall share of women in STEM.

On the other hand, once in academia women tend to progress in terms of publishing, hiring, salaries and promotion, even if in Computer Science and Economics they lag behind. Finishes Ginther insisting that work climate matters, with fields such as economics not being exempt from it. A number of questions of the audience were answered, after which the word was passed on to

After the talk of Prof. Donna Ginther, the word was passed on to Eva Gallardo, Full Professor of Mathematics at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid who stressed the importance of having women  at positions where they have decisionmaking capacity and showing that science is also made by women. Finally, the event was closed by Noelia Vera, Secretary of State of Equality and Against Gender Violence with praise for the event and its organisation, stressing the necessity of such actions.

Media credits:

Frontpage picture of businesswoman is in the public domain and was downloaded from PxHere.

YouTube video streamed and recorded by ICMAT during the event.