21 September, 2021
“At the heart of the Frontiers Awards is the conviction that knowledge is the best instrument we have to understand the world and ourselves, to face the great challenges of our time and create new opportunities for all,” remarked the BBVA Foundation President, Carlos Torres Vila.
This will be the second time that the Bizkaia capital has welcomed the Frontiers Awards events, following the Foundation’s decision in 2019 to make Bilbao their permanent home, and the impossibility of holding the 2020 events due to the COVID-19 emergency. Bilbao will thus celebrate a double ceremony recognizing the achievements of the 35 laureates in the 12th and 13th editions of the awards, co-chaired by the BBVA Foundation President and the President of the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC), Rosa Menéndez, and featuring interventions by the Lehendakari (Basque Country President), Íñigo Urkullu, and the Mayor of Bilbao, Juan Mari Aburto.
“Above and beyond the pandemic,” Carlos Torres Vila continued, “we live in a time of far-reaching changes, propelled by one of the biggest technological disruptions in history, and the vital challenge that is sustainability.”
Speaking about the twin environmental crises of climate change and biodiversity loss, he warned that “there is no vaccine fix.” Humanity, he added, “has never had so much responsibility in its hands. The knowledge-based actions we take today have the power to transform our planet for all time.”
Rosa Menéndez, President of the Spanish National Research Council (CISC), also spoke of science’s transcendental role in tackling the problems of today’s world: “It is our greatest resource to confront the great global challenges: pandemics, climate change, and the conservation of our natural heritage, biodiversity and oceans. The scientific advances needed to identify and address these issues are born of curiosity, creativity and the dedication of people like the awardees here today, whom we thank for their contributions to this effort.”
Of the 35 awardees in the eight categories of both award editions, 24 were there in person at the Euskalduna Conference Centre, having travelled in from some of Europe and America’s most reputed research centers. Joining them at the ceremony were 35 members of the international committees deciding the awards, many of them too travelling to Spain for the occasion. The Spanish scientific and creative communities were also represented by researchers and academics from some fifty different institutions, among them six university presidents and the heads of some dozen museums and research centers.
The environmental emergency, “a grave risk for civilization”
Awardees’ acceptance speeches reflected the depth and complexity of all that is at stake. On the issue of the climate crisis, MIT professor Kerry Emanuel, Climate Change laureate in the 12th edition for his pioneering work on hurricanes and how global warming is increasing their intensity, remarked that his branch of research was largely a product of curiosity-driven science.” This spirit of inquiry, he added, “has been the engine for most major advances in science and has also yielded leaps forward in technology and medicine completely unanticipated at the outset of the research.”
“Without basic science,” he continued, “we would have taken a decade rather than a year to develop the COVID vaccines that have saved millions of lives.”
Today, the research done by the community of climate scientists has proved that global warming, as Emanuel warns, “poses a serious risk to civilization.” One that has been verified through the work of international bodies like the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which he describes as “arguably the largest effort ever organized to summarize and convey scientific findings.”
The scale of the environmental crisis and the knowledge needed to confront it were also addressed by Sandra Lavorel, 13th edition winner with Sandra Díaz and Mark Westoby in the Ecology and Conservation Biology category. Professor Lavorel recalled the “collective adventure” that was the creation of TRY, a database of some 200,000 plant species (over half of all those known to science). This project, she explained, “has helped bring biodiversity into the assessment of climate change impacts on Planet Earth,” by anticipating how plants would respond to global warming, and can assist in “designing better management for the ecosystems we all depend on.”
Professor Michael Grätzel, awardee in the Basic Sciences category in the 13th edition, also placed the focus on sustainability, declaring that “perhaps the greatest challenge for our global society is to discover ways to replace fossil fuel supplies,” to confront the “planetary emergency” of climate change.
Arguing that “the quality of human life depends to a large extent on the availability of clean energy sources,” he explained his strategy to harness the sun’s energy, inspired by photosynthesis: “The solar cells that emerged from our extensive fundamental research use a pigment to harvest sunlight, mimicking the action of chlorophyll in the green leaf.” A discovery that testifies to the power of basic research to combat climate change through the development of renewable energies.
Opportunities and risks of the tech revolution
The transformation wrought by Information Technologies – another of the fields in which the Frontiers Awards distinguish leading-edge contributions – was touched on by a number of the speakers at the presentation ceremony. John Hennessy – a professor at Stanford and current Chairman of Alphabet, the parent company of Google – who with co-laureate David Patterson invented the microprocessors present in virtually all today’s cellphones, tablets, laptops and other electronic devices, talked about the importance of keeping an open mind, and not being afraid to run with “counterintuitive and controversial” ideas. “This award,” said Hennessy, “celebrates not only those ideas (…) but also the willingness to persevere, even when some people think you’re crazy.”
Bernhard Schölkopf, who shares the award with Isabelle Guyon and Vladimir Vapnik for their contributions to artificial intelligence, stressed both the opportunities and risks of the new tech revolution: “Machines that process information touch the human condition in more subtle ways than machines that are merely processing energy. We are beginning to see this in many ways – AI can diagnose diseases, manipulate information, influence elections, even help build weapons that take autonomous decisions without being accountable.”
Hence the importance, he insisted, of not losing sight of the ethical dimension in our development of intelligent machines: “Machine learning is technology, and technology is built by people to serve purposes.”
Research that averted the “catastrophic collapse” of the world economy
Another global threat very much present at the ceremony was that of economic crises. In less than a quarter of a century the world economy has lived through two major recessions. Mark Gertler, of New York University, explained in his speech how his research and that of his three co-laureates (professors Ben Bernanke, Nobuhiro Kiyotaki and John Moore) proved vital in tackling the financial crisis of the early 2000s and the Great Recession. The four awardees created a body of research that provided the intellectual underpinning for the implementation of unconventional monetary policy, the most widely used anti-crisis instrument of the 21st century (and still being deployed by central banks around the world).
“Thanks to one of the great coincidences of history,” related Gertler in his speech, “the person most qualified to manage a financial crisis was at the helm as the crisis unfolded. It was no surprise to me that, through bold and creative action, the Bernanke Federal Reserve contained the crisis, saving the global economy from a catastrophic collapse.”
Bernanke himself, a professor at The Brookings Institution, followed up Gertler’s remarks in his own speech broadcast live from Washington. “The lesson is that recession, deflation, and credit collapse are all interconnected,” he affirmed. “Economic downturns that reduce the net worth of borrowers and lenders also increase the aggregate external finance premium, throwing sand in the gears of the credit mechanism.”
The work of the four co-awardees, Bernanke added, “helps provide and clarify the missing links among the financial health of lenders and borrowers, the functioning of credit markets, and overall economic performance. It brings us that much closer to the holy grail of understanding the Depression.”
From “love of pure science” to new treatments for pain
The frontiers of knowledge in Biomedicine were represented by Ardem Patapoutian, who came to the United States as a war refugee from his native Lebanon. This researcher, and co-laureate with David Julius in the 13th edition of the awards, discovered the receptors that our bodies use to sense the physical forces we experience: “They help us distinguish a gentle breeze from the prick of a cactus, and they also tell us when our blood pressure is increased, or when our bladders are full.”
They also mark “the last frontier” in sensory biology, says Patapoutian, who took up this work “for the love of pure science, though interestingly we are also uncovering unexpected medical implications for our basic research, in areas such as pain, hypertension, atherosclerosis, and osteoporosis.”
The advantages and drawbacks of “cognitive shortcuts”
The challenge of deciphering the complexity of human behavior through the Social Sciences was represented at the ceremony by Susan Fiske, recognized with Shelley Taylor in the 12th edition for their work in social cognition, the study of the cognitive processes that individuals use to understand other people and themselves. Professor Fiske explained the origin of stereotypes as an indispensable cognitive tool for identifying possible threats, since they allow us to “simplify the human world” by rapidly dividing it into allies and potential foes.
“For example, scientists are viewed as competent but not so warm,” Fiske elaborates, “while old people are viewed as warm but incompetent. (…) Like other cognitive shortcuts, these stereotypes persist because they are efficient; useful, even if inaccurate or unfair.” Understanding the origin of stereotypes, she affirms, can help us overcome them.
The “civilizing force” of scientific thought
Finally, just a few months shy of his 100th birthday, the physicist and science historian Gerald Holton, distinguished in the Humanities category for articulating the fundamental role of science in culture – and that of culture in science – over the length of his illustrious career, addressed the public at the ceremony via a pre-recorded video.
In his writing, Holton stresses the importance of scientific thought in building and developing the mental maps that guide society, like a kind of cognitive GPS. For the Harvard University professor, besides its contribution to wealth and wellbeing, science also equips us with essential tools that strengthen our individual and collective capacity to make decisions and successfully confront the challenges before us. As he explained in his speech: “My research and publications have sought to analyze how society at large regards the place of science in our culture, and to understand the cultural contributions of science as a central civilizing force, fostering rationality and objectivity.”
“In our time,” he warned at the end of is speech, “the prevalent separation and splintering of the different parts of our culture are all too often taken for granted.” In this context, the Harvard professor reserved words for the Frontiers of Knowledge Awards’ inclusion of the Humanities, which he described as an “action on behalf of mending across the gaps” deserving to be “especially honored”.
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 encouragement of talent. The Frontiers of Knowledge Awards, funded with 400,000 euros in each of their eight categories, recognize and reward contributions of singular impact in science, technology, social sciences 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 global challenges of our time. Their eight categories are congruent with the knowledge map of the second half of the 20th century and the present day, 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 realms of contemporary music and opera.
The BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Awards are decided by committees made up of internationally reputed experts in their respective fields, who deliberate in complete independence relying solely on the standards 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.