Presentation ceremony of the 14th edition in Bilbao

The Frontiers Awards celebrate the power of knowledge as “the best compass” to address global disruptions like the pandemic and environmental degradation

The ceremony of the 14th edition of the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Awards celebrated the power of science and culture to successfully tackle the great global challenges of today’s world. We live in an “era of disruption” – in the words of Carlos Torres Vila, President of the BBVA Foundation and Chairman of the BBVA Group – beset by challenges on a planetary scale like the pandemic and environmental degradation. So “when we face challenges that transcend not just geographical borders but also the limits of our knowledge,” Torres Vila continued, “the priority must be to mount a coordinated global response based on research, innovation and education.”

16 June, 2022

The event, held in Bilbao’s Euskalduna Conference Centre, recognized 14 world leaders in scientific research and artistic creation, and marks the third occasion on which the Bizkaia capital has welcomed the Frontiers Awards events, following the Foundation’s decision in 2019 to make Bilbao their permanent home. Co-chaired by the BBVA Foundation President and the President of the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), Rosa Menéndez, the ceremony also featured a welcome address by the Mayor of Bilbao, Juan Mari Aburto, and a closing speech from the Lehendakari (Basque Country President), Íñigo Urkullu.

“When we had still not recovered from the COVID-19 crisis, we were shaken anew by the invasion of Ukraine,” said Carlos Torres Vila in his speech. The BBVA Foundation President also spoke about “the severity of climate change and biodiversity loss, probably among the two greatest disruptions in history.” Anti-COVID-19 vaccines, he said, have shown that the key to overcoming such challenges lies with “the knowledge generated thanks to international collaboration.”

The fundamental goal of the Frontiers of Knowledge Awards, established 15 years ago, is precisely to promote “rigorous and validated knowledge,” described by the BBVA Foundation President as “the best compass and the best instrument we have to understand the world and ourselves” and “confront the great challenges of our time.” 

CSIC President Rosa Menéndez echoed this sentiment when she said in her speech that “science is powerful and gives us the opportunity to design a fairer, more compassionate and sustainable future.” 

Also attending the ceremony were some thirty members of the international committees deciding the eight prize categories, drawn from some of the top universities in Europe and North America. The Spanish scientific and cultural community was also amply represented by researchers and academics from around fifty institutions, including the chancellors of some of the country’s leading universities and the directors of research centers and museums.

The road to COVID-19 vaccines: a long and draining obstacle race

The awardees in Biology and Biomedicine, Katalin Karikó, Drew Weissman and Robert Langer, all stressed the importance of basic research as a long-term investment, essential for sowing the seeds of future breakthroughs and successfully confronting the challenges of humanity, even if its benefits are not immediately realizable. Karikó and Weissman’s joint research on messenger RNA, and Langer’s work on nanoparticles propelled the creation of the two technologies permitting the development in record time of the vaccines that would help the world push back against the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, as their speeches make clear, what preceded this success was a long and draining obstacle race.

Professor Karikó pointed out that messenger RNA – the molecule that copies DNA information and transports it to our cells’ protein-making machinery – was discovered in 1961. But “it took 60 years to develop it into an approved medical product in the form of the first two COVID-19 vaccines. What happened during those years?” The answer, explains the Hungarian-born researcher, lies in the hidden labor of the thousands of scientists who strove for decades to devise a technology capable of using messenger RNA to teach our own cells to produce therapeutic proteins. It was finally Karikó and Weissman who, after 25 years working together at the University of Pennsylvania, arrived at the fundamental discovery that made it possible to modify messenger RNA in such a way as to avoid the inflammatory reaction that had till then ruled out its medical use. 

“This technology ultimately became the basis for the FDA approved anti-SARS-CoV-2 mRNA vaccines to fight the current global pandemic,” Karikó explained. Weissman recalled in his speech how, in those twenty years of working together in the laboratory, “each spark of something interesting, whether a finding we expected – or even more exciting, the ones we didn’t – motivated us to continue.”

For as has so often occurred in the history of science when frontiers are displaced and established paradigms called into question, the three co-laureates had a hard time convincing their colleagues of the importance of their work. The acceptance speech of Professor Langer, an MIT professor and co-founder of the biotech firm Moderna responsible for one of the mRNA vaccines against COVID-19, provides a salutary reminder of the resistance that can be encountered by radical innovation, even within the scientific community.

Langer, a chemical engineer by training and inventor of the nanoparticles into which mRNA is packaged for delivery to the inside of cells, talked of how he suffered for decades the skepticism and rejection of colleagues who froze him out: “I had a dream of using my background to improve people’s health. So I applied to many hospitals and medical schools, but none wrote back.” In fact the nine first grant requests he wrote for his research were all turned down, and the Patent Office rejected his application five straight times, alleging that his proposals were “impossible” to implement. 

“My journey,” he reflected, “to a large extent mirrors that of Drs. Karikó and Weissman. Their early pioneering work was very underappreciated for a long time, but they never gave up regardless of what others said.”

Today no one disputes the three laureates’ shared contributions, as confirmed by the committee granting them the Frontiers of Knowledge Award. Weissman feels himself fortunate, he says, that their work has helped millions of people around the world, describing this achievement as “the hope of every physician-scientist.” He also stressed that anti-coronavirus vaccines are just the tip of the iceberg in a field with huge medical potential going forward: “The work left to do, and the potential of mRNA vaccines, therapeutics, and gene therapies, continue.”

Science to counter the “existential threat” of climate change and the biodiversity crisis

“Ice cores provide an amazing medium for investigating Earth’s climatic and environmental changes, as they record everything in the atmosphere and freeze it in time,” explained Lonnie Thompson, co-laureate in the Climate Change category with his wife Ellen Mosley-Thompson. The glaciologist couple, professors at The Ohio State University, received the award for their studies of glacier retreat, which show that climate change is advancing faster than ever before. 

Starting in 1974, these intrepid scientists and explorers have made as many as 64 expeditions to the world’s highest peaks “to recover the ice-core histories preserved in Earth’s rapidly disappearing glaciers,” said Thompson in his speech. In total they have collected ice cores from 78 locations in 16 countries, as well as in Antarctica and Greenland. And the results of their research leave no room for doubt: “Today Earth’s climate system is experiencing changes to its stability at unprecedented rates.” 

Hence his insistence on the importance of scientific research on global warming, which he described as “an existential threat” to humankind: “As the world’s population and our technology to exploit natural resources continue to grow, the need to understand human influences on the processes driving climate change and environmental degradation are now more critical than ever… This knowledge is crucial to develop robust climate models whose predictions guide our efforts to mitigate the anticipated changes and develop a portfolio of adaptive measures for implementation by both developed and developing nations.”

For despite the scale and complexity of the challenge, Thompson insists that it is not too late to “accelerate the transition to a carbon-free society,” developing the technologies needed to curb greenhouse gas emissions and hastening the move to cheaper, more efficient renewables. The glaciologist is also pinning his hopes on a growing social awareness of the seriousness of the problem, especially among young people: “There is time for us to work together, nationally and internationally, to slow and ideally eliminate the global threat posed by climate and environmental change and the resulting impact on our societies, economies, and livelihoods.”

Professor Simon Levin, who shares the award in Ecology and Conservation Biology with Lenore Fahrig and Steward Pickett, delivered a similar message about the advances of science in combating that other environment-related “existential threat”: the runaway loss of biodiversity. The trio received the Frontiers Award for incorporating the spatial dimension into ecosystem research, referring to landscape and its multiple scales, and bringing it to bear in the management of coupled human-natural systems.

“The variety of habitats and biomes in the world, the spread of invasive species and infectious diseases, the design of nature reserves, and the mobility of species including our own all make clear the need for the development of approaches that fully take into account the spatial dimensions of population dynamics, species interactions and nutrient fluxes,” Levin explained.

The Princeton ecologist looked back to nearly 50 years ago when he was working to lay the theoretical and mathematical foundations of what came to be called spatial ecology, endeavoring to understand “the essential factors underlying the generation and maintenance of biodiversity, as well as the distribution of plants and animals across the globe.” Later in his speech he described how Fahrig – Professor of Biology at Carleton University (Canada) – applied this approach to reduce “the impacts of habitat fragmentation on biodiversity,” citing as an example those due to road networks, “one of the most destructive of human assaults on our planet.” Referring to Pickett, a researcher at the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies (United States), Levin talked about his pioneering work to apply spatial ecology principles in the city environment, training a spotlight on “the importance of urban spaces in preserving biodiversity.”

From this standpoint, Professor Levin too elected to convey a message of optimism about the potential of the environmental sciences to provide solutions that preserve the habitability of our planet: “The spatial dimensions of these challenges are crucial in maintaining public goods and common-pool resources, without which there is no sustainable future for humanity.”

The economy as a web of social interactions

The laureates in the Economics, Finance and Management and Social Sciences categories are two of the world’s leading authorities on economic and social networks: Matthew Jackson and Mark Granovetter, respectively, both of them professors at Stanford University.

The award-winning contributions of the two social scientists have independently established a substantial and influential connection between the set of personal and group relationships maintained by individuals, firms and institutions and their social and economic outcomes in areas as diverse as professional career, income level, or financial dependence.

Matthew Jackson has pointed out in several articles that social networks have a strong impact on economic performance. An archetypal example is that of unemployment. If an unemployed person’s social networks (family, friends and acquaintances) are also out of work, it will be much more difficult for him or her to find a job than if they were employed. This, he argues, demands that we take a fresh look at the standard mechanisms used to combat inequalities: “Redistribution of wealth and income only addresses the symptoms of inequality and not its root causes. There is a clear need for policies that enrich people’s networks and provide the information and opportunities that their networks fail to provide.”

Jackson talked in his speech about a doubt that has pursued him throughout his research career: the suspicion that economic theory was overlooking the fact that most economic interactions are rooted in a broad set of social interactions, i.e., they are embedded (a nod to Mark Granovetter) in a social setting: “Humans are a social species, and how they organize themselves matters. What I have had the pleasure of working on for the past three decades is the marriage of economic questions and techniques with the realization that the network patterns of interaction provide vital insights into human behaviors.”

Professor Granovetter made a similar point in suggesting that classical economics failed to fully appreciate the social foundations of economic action: “It seemed to me that what it did not sufficiently take into account was that all economic activity is embedded in networks of social interaction, which includes interaction beyond that which is purely economic.” These social foundations include the critical role of norms, trust, power, social institutions and history, all elements he posits as determining variables of economic interaction in his book Society and Economy, which draws its content from a diversity of knowledge fields. A transdisciplinarity that characterizes Professor Granovetter and his work: “The importance of power and institutions means that in order to write such a book, I have had to immerse myself in the literatures not only of economics and sociology, but also of anthropology, history and political science.” 

The start of his speech explores the origins of this mindset: “At the Harvard University Department of Social Relations, in the 1960s, though each student specialized in one discipline, we were all trained in five of them: sociology, social anthropology, social psychology, clinical psychology and developmental psychology. Graduate students were mixed together in our offices across these disciplines, and we learned from one another as well as from the faculty. If the generous citation of the social sciences award committee is accurate, and my work contributes not only to sociology and economics but also to social psychology, political science, communication, marketing and computer science, it may be a consequence of this ecumenical training.” He later remarked that his paper on weak ties had found a much larger following from the 1990s on, once the study of networks became a major subfield in the natural sciences and computer science.

This paper, the most cited in all the social sciences, established the importance of “acquaintances” in helping people to find work, finding that their extended network of looser, more superficial ties was at least as effective as their close “inner” circle. The manuscript was initially turned down by its academic reviewers, who considered it not suitable for publication; another instance of the resistance so often met by the most radical kind of innovation.

From leading-edge mathematics to machines able to reason like humans

Professors Charles Fefferman of Princeton University, and Jean-François Le Gall of Université Paris-Saclay, received the award in Basic Sciences for their fundamental contributions in two mathematical areas that have found application in multiple domains. In the speech he delivered on both their behalf, Professor Le Gall chose to highlight the groundbreaking research of his colleague Fefferman, whom he defined as “one of the great mathematicians of our times.”

“Part of his work,” the French scientist related, “is concerned with complex function theory, one of the great achievements of 19th century mathematics.” This theory studies a variety of phenomena, including “the making of accurate maps, the flow of water on a flat surface, and the electric field in a two-dimensional material.”

On the subject of his own work, focused on two-dimensional random geometry, Le Gall explained that research in this field can elucidate the workings of models based on quantum gravity, “the physical theory which aims at unifying general relativity and quantum mechanics.”

“The Frontiers of Knowledge Award,” he remarked in closing, “has a major significance for me, as it means the recognition of the importance of the new field of research which I have developed together with colleagues all around the world. It is also a strong encouragement for me to push forward this line of research.”

Professor Judea Pearl was recognized in the Information and Communication Technologies category for his pioneering work in artificial intelligence. He talked in his speech about how the problems he confronted in trying to get a machine to think like a human being have taught him a lot about how our own brains work: “By asking ‘how would a machine do it?’ we get an insight into how we do it, because machines provide us with flexible laboratories to try out various theories of human thoughts, and see which one behaves as well as we do… Indeed, artificial intelligence research has unlocked some basic secrets of reasoning, in both man and machine.”

Pearl, Professor of Computer Science and Director of the Laboratory of Cognitive Systems at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), has made conceptual mathematical and formal contributions that enable AI programs to effectively interiorize two of the key resources we humans use to interpret the world and arrive at decisions: probability and causality.

The ICT laureate stressed the huge implications of a machine being capable of asking counterfactual questions (“What if I had acted differently and taken the road not taken?”) and imagining a hypothetical world where things have gone a different way: “It allows machines to predict the effect of actions and policies that were never tried before. For example, what if we ban cigarette smoking, or what if we use a new drug in a new country. It also allows us to predict the effect of treatments on an individual patient, never treated before, thus ushering in the era of personalized medicine and personalized decision-making.”

Today, said Pearl, “we have the theory and the algorithms to enable a robot to make these computations.” In closing, he talked about how much the Frontiers of Knowledge Award meant to him, the more so as his innovative research had encountered its own “share of skepticism” from colleagues, echoing the experience of the laureates in Biomedicine and Social Sciences: “I hope the prestigious visibility of this award will entice practicing scientists in all disciplines to evaluate the powerful tools that causal inference is providing them with.”

Philip Glass announces the premiere of his Symphony No. 15 on the figure of Abraham Lincoln

The architecture of the Frontiers of Knowledge Awards places the seven previous areas of scientific endeavor on an equal footing with Music and Opera, an award category in which this year’s winner is the American composer Philip Glass. In his acceptance speech, Maestro Glass remarked that the significance for him of receiving the award was that it recognized “people who are alive and working and writing about the world we live in.”

It was while learning to write music, Glass recalled at the ceremony, that he noticed that some of the skills he was using to create were the same as those he needed when studying physics or math: “I found that almost anything I did could be expressed in music.” Relating art and science is something natural for the composer, whose music brings together these seemingly disparate worlds through its focus on figures like Einstein, Galileo, Kepler or Stephen Hawking, individuals “who were very radical in their ways of life and changed the world that they lived in.”

Glass also spoke about the importance of the creative process inherent to all forms of culture, including the arts and sciences: “The contribution that any artist makes is the work he or she creates. In my case, I made the work for myself, but when the audience sees it, it’s not mine anymore. It belongs to them. There is a profound satisfaction to making art and to have the ability to visualize work and then bring it to a state where it can be communicated. The joy of creation is totally satisfying. That’s why I wake up in the morning. There should be a kind of commitment to bring some joy into the world, hopefully for yourself as well.” 

The composer alluded to his Wagnerian view of the opera as a total work of art: “When I got involved with working in opera, I saw that it combines all the visual arts, the movement arts, the playing of music arts: everything that happens in the arts happens in opera. What I was interested in is how the languages of the arts flow into each other.” 

He took the occasion of his speech to announce that he is about to complete what will be his fifteenth symphony, with a text based on the writings and spoken texts of Abraham Lincoln: “Currently I am at work on a new vocal/orchestra work that is being composed for a solo baritone and full symphonic accompaniment. Probably it will be 50 to 60 pages of full score composing. Probably it will be my Symphony No. 15. It will be close to one hour in length and will have its premiere at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC this October. It was intended to be a ‘concert’ work but it also has many qualities of an opera. Truthfully, I am at this moment unsure of its category. Symphony? Opera? We will likely know soon.” 

About the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Awards

The BBVA Foundation centers its activity on the promotion of world-class scientific research and cultural creation, and the recognition of talent. The Frontiers of Knowledge Awards, established in 2008, recognize and reward contributions of singular impact in science, art and the humanities, privileging those that significantly expand the frontiers of the known world, open up new fields, or emerge from the interaction of various disciplinary areas. 

The goal of the awards is to celebrate and promote the value of knowledge as a public good without frontiers, the best instrument at our command to take on the great challenges and opportunities of our time. Their eight categories are congruent with the knowledge map of the 21st century, according a differential weight to areas of particular relevance and dynamism in recent decades, such as the environment, information and communication technologies and biomedicine, alongside other areas like basic sciences, economics, social sciences, the humanities and the supremely creative realm of contemporary music and opera.

The international committees deciding the Frontiers Awards are formed by internationally reputed experts, who deliberate independently applying the indicators and metrics of excellence proper to the subject area. Nominations are received each year from many of the world’s most prestigious academic, research and artistic institutions. 

The BBVA Foundation is aided in candidate evaluation in the eight award categories by the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), the country’s premier public research organization. CSIC appoints evaluation support panels made up of leading experts in the corresponding disciplinary domain, who are charged with undertaking an initial assessment of candidates, and drawing up a reasoned shortlist for the consideration of the award committees. CSIC is also responsible for designating each committee’s chair and participates with the BBVA Foundation in the selection of its members, thus helping to ensure the objectivity and merit of the selection process.

20 Frontiers laureates have gone on to win the Nobel Prize

One external indicator of the excellence of the Frontiers of Knowledge Awards is that as many as 20 awardees have subsequently been distinguished with a Nobel Prize.

Nine Frontiers laureates have gone on to take the Nobel Prize in Economics: Lars Peter Hansen (2013), Jean Tirole (2014), Angus Deaton (2015),  William Nordhaus (2018), Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo (2019), Paul Milgrom and Robert Wilson (2020) and David Card (2021).

In the case of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, four Frontiers awardees were later distinguished by the Swedish Academy: Shinya Yamanaka (2011), James P. Allison (2018), and David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian (2021).

The Nobel Prize in Physics has found its way to four previous Frontiers laureates: Didier Queloz and Michel G. E. Mayor (2019), and Klaus Hasselman and Syukuru Manabe (2021).

And finally, three Frontiers awardees have gone on to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry: Robert J. Lefkowitz in 2012, and  Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna in 2020.