Presentation ceremony of the 15th edition in Bilbao

The Frontiers of Knowledge Awards assert the value of science and culture as “vital pillars” to guide decision-making in the face of humanity’s most pressing challenges

The ceremony of the 15th edition of the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Awards celebrated the transformative power of science and culture as “global activities without borders” that are also “vital pillars” to guide decision-making on humanity’s most pressing challenges and work towards solutions. We need to address such complex issues as “the severity of climate change and biodiversity loss, probably among the two greatest disruptions in history.” And to do so means “redoubling our commitment to knowledge and innovation.” This was the call issued by the BBVA Foundation President, Carlos Torres Vila, during the event held in the Euskalduna Bilbao auditorium, recognizing 18 world leaders in scientific research and artistic creation.

20 June, 2023

This is the fourth time that the Bizkaia capital has welcomed the Frontiers Awards presentation 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), Eloísa del Pino, the ceremony also featured a welcome address by the Mayor of Bilbao, Juan Mari Aburto, and a closing speech from the Lehendakari (President) of the Basque Government, Íñigo Urkullu.

The BBVA Foundation’s international awards are now into their fifteenth edition and, as Carlos Torres Vila remarked, are “acknowledged as an indicator of scientific and cultural excellence on a global scale” that reflects “the knowledge map of the 21st century.” Through the Frontiers of Knowledge Awards “year after year, we have helped shine a light on the decisive role of research and creation,” added the BBVA Foundation President and Chairman of the BBVA Group. A goal, he insisted, that has never been most relevant, since “knowledge is the best tool we have to understand the world and ourselves, and, as a society, to make the most of present and future opportunities.”

In her speech, Eloísa del Pino, the President of the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), gave thanks to the Frontiers laureates. “Today, in the midst of the climate and energy crises, after a horrific pandemic and with the resurgence of intolerant, extremist thinking,” their work, she said, has made a crucial contribution to solving “problems like the fight against disease, the conservation of biodiversity, the fair distribution of wealth or the stability of democracy.”

The ceremony also welcomed a sizable representation of the international committees deciding the eight prize categories, drawn from some of the top universities in Europe and North America. Among the more than 1,000 people in attendance were eminent researchers, artists and academics from the Spanish scientific and cultural community, along with leading figures from the business world and mass media.

The usefulness of exploring electron motion out of simple curiosity

In Basic Sciences, research tends to be driven by the pure curiosity of those who practise it, while usefulness takes a back seat. This is so even when the research in question ends up having a transformative impact. A case in point is Anne L’Huillier, who shares the award in this category with Paul Corkum and Ferenc Krausz for generating the shortest light pulses ever recorded. The use of these pulses, which the scientist, speaking on behalf of the three, describes as like “an ultra-short flash from a camera,” has enabled the direct observation of electron motion in atoms, so fast that it was till now inaccessible to experimental study. The light pulses last just a few attoseconds, i.e, quintillionths of a second, and have given rise to a new branch of physics known as attophysics.

L’Huillier was clear that her motivation, and that of her colleagues, sprang from a spirit of inquiry rather than the potential applications of her work: “Research in attosecond science has been and is still driven by curiosity, the wish to learn new things and push forward the frontiers of knowledge.”

In her speech, however, the awardee ventured some practical directions this research might take: “Can attosecond pulses help us understand and possibly control chemical processes useful for the green transformation that we so badly need? Possibly, I hope so. Can attosecond pulses help build tomorrow’s computers that will be based on very small components? I think that this will happen, it has started.”

And behind these applications could come many more. As with so many other areas of basic research, it is still too soon to gauge the true impact of attophysics. A historical parallel L’Huillier draws is with the development of lasers: “Lasers were not invented to solve a problem,” she pointed out, although they have revolutionized fields from medicine to communication. By the same token, “attosecond pulses were not invented or developed to solve a specific problem, they were discovered out of curiosity. The future will tell us what impact on society they will have.”

The “incredible developments” of artificial intelligence in the study and design of proteins

The awardees in the Biology and Biomedicine category, David Baker, Demis Hassabis and John Jumper, have given proof of the vast promise of artificial intelligence in the search for new, effective treatments for multiple conditions. The three pioneered the use of this technology to study how proteins fold, a question that has occupied biologists for more than six decades.

The key to understanding how a protein will act lies in the arrangement in space it adopts through folding, but deciphering this in the lab or predicting it from its chemical composition is an arduous and error-prone process. Both Hassabis and Jumper, at company DeepMind, and Baker, in his lab at the University of Washington, believed artificial intelligence could provide the key to predicting protein structure quickly and dependably. Their efforts led to the development of two tools, AlphaFold and RoseTTAFold, that can solve a protein’s shape in a matter of minutes with unprecedented reliability.

“Scientists have been able to use AlphaFold in conjunction with other experimental techniques to understand the structure and function of some of the largest and most complex molecular machines in the cell,” said Jumper in his speech. Another “incredible development” which the awardee chose to highlight is AlphaFold’s use to create a “molecular syringe” with potential applications in cancer therapies.

Baker, meanwhile, noted that the proteins living beings produce carry out essentially all the important functions in our bodies, like digesting food, moving or firing neurons. These proteins, he added, “evolved to solve problems that were important during natural selection.” Today, however, we face very different problems, like the diseases associated with increased life expectancy or the scourges of pollution and global warming. The result, he argued, is that we now need to design new proteins to solve new challenges.

“We could wait for new proteins to evolve, but this would take many millions of years, and we don’t have that kind of time,” he warned. Fortunately, as well as predicting how naturally-occurring proteins will fold, the RoseTTAFold program developed by Baker has also proved able to run the process in reverse: designing proteins from scratch in record time. “We have now designed and experimentally tested hundreds of thousands of brand-new proteins that solve a very wide range of problems. And we are using these methods to develop cures for cancer, infectious diseases, and more, as well as new advanced materials and technologies for a more sustainable tomorrow.”

Revolutionizing the design of the ubiquitous chip

The research done by Alberto Sangiovanni Vincentelli, awardee in Information and Communication Technologies, revolutionized the design of semiconductor chips by automating key aspects of their construction. The result has been today’s vastly more powerful chips, with automation raising the numbers of their components from hundreds to literally tens of billions.

“The strategic importance of semiconductor design and manufacturing cannot be overestimated,” the awardee affirmed in his speech. “Chips are pervasive. Everyday objects are powered by chips, from cars to airplanes, from medical devices to smartphones.” Artificial intelligence, moreover, would be “simply impossible” without semiconductors.

Aware from the start of the repercussions of his research, Sangiovanni Vincentelli opted to make his algorithms and IT tools freely available to anyone who wished to use them. “We felt strongly that allowing others to leverage our work freely and to verify our theories with their implementation was essential to advance the field,” he remarked.

In the 1980s, Sangiovanni Vincentelli founded two firms that are now multinational concerns, each of them worth many billions of dollars. The awardee attributes his entrepreneurial success to the strong ties he has kept up with the scientific community: “I believe that the staying power of these companies, which are still growing at a fast pace after almost 40 years, is due to fundamental results in research.”

In the midst of widespread debate about the possible risks of disruptive technologies like artificial intelligence, Sangiovani Vincentelli was adamant that engineering must be sure to keep within the moral limits. “In conceiving ideas and bringing them to life we need to take into consideration ethics: ensuring that our creations do not bring harm to humans or the environment.” It was in this spirit that he concluded his speech with a call for the humanities to become a core part of the training of technical professionals: “I am convinced that a solid scientific and technical education cannot forget the humanities. Many mistakes made in the development of technological systems could have been avoided if we had paused to think about their broader implications.”

Lessons for today from a 56-million-year-old “greenhouse effect”

Of the great challenges currently confronting us, one of the most pressing is unquestionably global warming. Ellen Thomas, who shares the Climate Change award with James Zachos, warned in her speech that fossil fuel burning brings “problems for humanity” that go far beyond rising temperatures to encompass “a multitude of direct and indirect environmental consequences of greenhouse gas emission.”

Thomas and Zachos found that 56 million years ago there was a pronounced global warming episode driven by greenhouse gas emissions, whose likeliest origin was a volcanic eruption. The oceans turned more acidic and droughts and floods increased, causing a global mass extinction of species. It was some decades ago that the awardees began studying this warming episode and its consequences, and Thomas recalled that, for most of her career, she considered her field of study “fascinating but without any practical relevance to society.”

With time, however, she would come to change her mind. “I was wrong, very wrong. Insights gained from studying these now lost worlds of the past add materially to understanding our present and future world.” Thanks to her research, we now know that human-induced global warming can also drive up sea levels, alter ecosystems and unleash massive extinction events. “Data on long-past worlds document actual integrated examples of what happened on Earth during past greenhouse warming, enabling us to see what our future could look like, more than a few decades in the future, extending into evolutionary timescales,” she explained.

For the laureate, what is at stake is not so much the future of Earth itself as the multiple impacts of climate change on its human inhabitants and the other species with whom we share the planet: “Earth will be just fine, as it has been over hundreds of millions of years, but we, people, will not be fine. It is our houses and roads and railways, our cities close to the sea, as in my native Netherlands, our patterns of agriculture that will not be sustainable.”

What baboons and peacocks can teach us about biodiversity conservation

The other great environmental challenge of our time is the biodiversity crisis. And the work of the three winners in the Ecology and Conservation Biology category – Susan Alberts, Jeanne Altmann and Marlene Zuk – provides a guide to identify the most effective action to conserve a wide range of animals, including primates, birds and insects.

In her speech, delivered on behalf of the three, Alberts explained that she and Altmann had been able to observe baboon behavior across multiple generations against a background of environmental change: “We have sought to push the boundaries of knowledge about how non-human primates – and by extension we humans – navigate the complex social and physical landscapes in which we live.” The laureate expressed her hope that this new knowledge “has contributed to our understanding of how to conserve these animals.”

Her co-awardee Zuk has explored how male-female interactions or those between parasites and their hosts explain preferences in mating. Indeed she kicked off her career with what Alberts hailed as “one of the most famous and important hypotheses in evolutionary biology,” which states that “genetic variation in a population – essential for populations to persist – can be maintained if females are able to detect and choose males who have strong immune systems. Zuk’s work, Alberts continued, has facilitated “large increases in knowledge about how the immune system, morphology and behavior have co-evolved.”

Perhaps the most illustrative example of this parallel evolution lies in the ornamentation of peacocks’ tails. Zuk wondered if male peacocks had developed ways to signal their ability to combat disease, so females could choose to mate with the most resistant among them. On closer study, she realized that, in effect, its ornamental tail was used to signal a bird’s resistance to parasites. Females’ preference for males with the most elaborate ornamentation, it turned out, was a key mechanism in the evolution not just of peacocks but also of many other animal groups. Zuk’s studies offer valuable pointers to which facets of animal biology must be tended to most closely to ensure the persistence of their populations.

The linkages between political systems and the economy

“Does the level and composition of public spending depend on how a country’s government is appointed?” This was the opening question posed in his speech by Torsten Persson, co-laureate with Timothy Besley and Guido Tabellini in the Economics, Finance and Management category for transforming political economy into a modern, empirical science able to provide answers to such hard questions.

The Swedish economist recalled how it was seeing “widespread, real-world mess-ups in the economic and political affairs” of their respective countries that set the three awardees on their particular research course. High inflation, devaluation, large government deficits, repeated government crises, spiraling public debt ratios and mounting social tensions were endemic in their home countries through the 1980s and 1990s, and while “it seemed lame to see such episodes as random policy mistakes,” the truth is that “ systematic explanations did not really exist.”

Inspired by such real-world problems, and aided by the “revolution” in economic science unfolding at the time, with the emergence of game theory and new experimental tools, the awardee economists were able to conclude, for instance, that legislatures elected by proportional representation, rather than first past the post, tend to tax and spend more overall: “With proportional elections, the GDP share of total public spending is about 5 percent higher. Likewise, presidential governments spend less than parliamentary ones – in the data, levels are lower by some 5 percent of GDP.” This research by Persson and Tabellini established a direct relationship between a country’s constitutional system and its economic and fiscal policy.

Persson would later build on these findings with Timothy Besley, characterizing the “pillars” that sustained “effective states.” They identified three key capacities in this respect: the power to collect tax revenue, to support private markets, and to provide collective services. According to their studies, “state capacities should develop jointly and their economic and political drivers should be common. Indeed, clusters of strong and weak states stand out clearly in data, with stronger states also richer and less violent than weaker states.”

Professor Persson also reserved words for his late colleague Alberto Alesina, a close collaborator and co-author with Professor Tabellini, “who might have shared our award but for his premature death just three summers ago.”

The power of music – great as nature, the greatest of all powers

Music and Opera awardee Thomas Adès, whose work In Seven Days was performed the night before in the gala concert in honor of laureates, recalled learning while young that the power of music was “great as nature, the greatest of all powers.” This revelation came to him with the “sudden” discovery of great composers of the past like Beethoven, Sibelius, Janáček, Stravinsky or Messiaen: “I found that composing, necessary to my physical survival, could also give me access to this power. And I learned that times change, but the problems are the same.”

Music, in his experience, was like a knot inside him that he had to unravel for the piece to emerge. The first time he had this physical sensation was as an adolescent, when he discovered the transformative magic of those “tangles of sounds.” The second was when composing Asyla, a work inspired by techno music in which he repeats the same figures almost obsessively, 8, 16, 32 times, on the dozens of instruments the piece is scored for. He thought it was his heart, but later found out in hospital that what he had suffered was a panic attack.

The British composer referred several times to his family influences. It was his father who first taught him piano, though “he says now that after he showed me a few tunes I quickly pushed him off the stool.” He also mentioned his mother, a historian specialized in Surrealism who brought him up on a diet of Buñuel. “For me – he explained – the paradoxes of his work are part of life. He pushed me, in my efforts to stave off my ever-threatening heart attack, to find a musical “America” of my own – a New World, guided by temperament, but also by something beyond me.”

For Adès, it was especially pleasing to receive the award in Bilbao, the first place he visited outside his native Britain. “The vision of this place, different as it was from the city of today, was an inspiration to the boy on the prow of that ferry. Since then Spanish art has often been an inspiration to me. From the influence of Spanish music and traditional culture in Living Toys, through the conquistadors in America: A Prophecy, to Luis Buñuel in The Exterminating Angel.

The power of rationality to inform ethics and drive progress

In their speeches, both Steven Pinker and Peter Singer, the thinkers distinguished in the Humanities category, championed the power of rational thought to guide our ethical steps and advance progress.

Singer also mounted a powerful defense of “our ability to reason” as “ the only reliable way to gain knowledge, and make progress towards a better world.” The philosopher recalled how his book Animal Liberation was greeted “with hostility and even ridicule” when it was published 50 years ago, in 1975. This pathbreaking work laid the foundations for the expansion of moral consideration to non-human animals, with a central argument that Singer reprised in his Frontiers Award acceptance speech. “Pain is pain, no matter the species of the one who is experiencing it, and we are not justified in ignoring it or discounting it because it is not the pain of a member of our species.”

Five decades after he laid out these arguments for the first time, his views have contributed to major advances in international animal rights legislation. “In the European Union, it is now illegal to crowd hens into bare wire cages in which they cannot spread their wings,” the philosopher affirmed. “Similarly, veal calves and pigs can no longer be held in individual stalls too narrow for them even to turn around.”

For Singer, although much remains to be done to strengthen animal protection, progress to date gives proof of the vital role of the humanities, and philosophy in particular, in shaping people’s ethical convictions and behavior towards our fellow beings, including the other species with whom we share the planet: “Over the years I have received hundreds of emails from people telling me that my work has changed their lives. Is there any other area of study that can have such a profound effect on the lives of those who take part in it?”

Pinker, for his part, talked about the power of rationality as a motor of progress: “If we apply reason to the goal of improving human flourishing, we can gradually succeed.” The Harvard psychologist referred in his speech to a central argument in two of his most influential works, The Better Angels of Our Nature and Enlightenment Now: the fact that our vision of the world is distorted due to a constant bombardment by the media highlighting “the worst things happening on a given day.”

The data Pinker presents in both books show a very different reality; one of global improvement over the last few centuries in all the main indicators of human wellbeing: from a reduction in violence, falling infant mortality and increased life expectancy to a decline in extreme poverty, higher literacy rates and a growing number of countries with democratic governments.

“The ideal of progress is not a matter of optimism or idealism,” insisted Pinker, “but a demonstrable empirical fact. It is by no means inevitable – the laws of nature are indifferent to our wellbeing – but depends on whether we continue to apply reason to improve human flourishing.” For though the human mind harbors “inclinations to violence, particularly dominance, revenge, sadism, and exploitation,” it also finds room for “faculties that counteract them, such as self-control, morality, cognition, and sympathy.” These words echo the thesis of The Blank Slate, another of his landmark books.

From this standpoint, Pinker expressed his conviction that, despite the apocalyptic visions that abound about the future of our species, there are solid grounds for an “enlightened optimism,” provided we can preserve the ideals, values and institutions that have come down to us from the Age of Enlightenment: “Though we are indeed fallible creatures, we have honed our reasoning with tools like logic, probability, and the scientific method, and can correct each other’s fallacies through open criticism and debate.”

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.