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Too much spin

by Bibiana Campos Seijo
March 20, 2017 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 95, Issue 12

There is such a thing as too much spin. By this I mean spin in the political sense of the word—an interpretation designed to leave the public with a favorable (or sometimes, unfavorable) impression—rather than its meaning in the physical sciences.

I thought about spin as I read a column in the journal Nature that had come in response to an article published in the magazine Science & Diplomacy, a publication from the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Center for Science Diplomacy.

Let me give you some background. The Science & Diplomacy article was titled “Spanish Science Diplomacy: A Global and Collaborative Bottom-Up Approach” and was written by a group of individuals associated with the Spanish Foundation for Science & Technology (FECYT). A public foundation dependent on the Spanish Ministry of Economic Affairs and Competitiveness, FECYT’s mission is to increase the knowledge and participation of Spanish citizens in science.

The piece advocates for “top-down ­support to bottom-up scientific associations” made up of Spanish researchers abroad. The goal is for the Spanish government via FECYT and similar organizations to engage with Spanish researchers abroad and create “a network of science diplomats” who can serve “as key partners for public diplomacy.” The Spanish government’s strategies to achieve this include placing scientists at embassies as scientific and technological advisers, organizing events and symposia, and offering career development workshops.

The article goes on to state that “the Spanish government believes its new science diplomacy network of Spanish researchers abroad can act as assets for soft-power diplomacy and as partners and mutual multipliers for initiatives.”

Someone took issue with that statement in particular. That someone is U.S.-based astrophysicist Amaya Moro-Martin. She is the author of the second article I mentioned, “How Dare You Call Us Diplomats,” which was published in Nature in response to FECYT’s piece.

Moro-Martin is described as being “furious about Spanish government attempts to brand her and other exiled scientists as strategic partners.” I’m not surprised.

The Science & Diplomacy piece got caught up in its own spin, and Moro-Martin has no time for diplomacy. I wouldn’t either if I were one of the many thousands of scientists who have seen themselves, as Moro-Martin describes, “forced to leave Spain because of the dire circumstances surrounding research at home.”

When I left Spain in 1997, there were already talks of a diaspora or “brain drain” in the scientific community, with many folks leaving the country to be able to complete Ph.D.s and the like. Now it is a lot worse. Spain has been cutting down its investment in R&D for years. The youth unemployment rate in the country was 43% as of December 2016; the only EU member state with a higher jobless rate is Greece with 44%. And this is lower than the rates the country was seeing at the worst of the financial crisis, around 2013–14. The authors of the Science & Diplomacy piece ignore most of this; they acknowledge the economic turmoil but refer to the diaspora as “brain circulation.” This does not help. We need to call it what it is.

The authors continue to spin when they go on to describe the benefits of a Spanish scientific community abroad, including increased international visibility, greater likelihood of international collaborations with Spanish institutions, and more. Again, the few who left by choice may indeed see these as benefits. But those who left to be able to earn a living as scientists may be more likely to see them as unintended consequences. No amount of spin is likely to change this.

Views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.


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