When science goes social
The Social Media Club is an international community that explores key issues related to the transformation of our society by digital technologies. In that context, it organizes scientific conferences aiming to promote social media knowledge and good practices through meetings between experts and professionals. Started in 2006 in San Francisco, it gathers over 100.000 members in 42 countries. On December 11, Solvay Prize and Nobel Prize winner Ben Feringa joins a panel in Paris to discuss the question of scientific education.
On that occasion, we sat down with the Dutch professor of chemistry to talk about scientific research and education today and learn a little more about his career and outlook on science in general.
Hello Professor Feringa. First of all, why did you choose to participate in this debate?
Ben Feringa: Well, I think it’s fascinating to think about the future of chemistry and physics and how we integrate fields to cooperate on really challenging problems. Bringing people together from different backgrounds, from theory to experimental science, like at the Solvay Institute for example, that’s unique and very important.
How do you think science can be made more accessible to a wider audience?
B.F.: We as scientists have an important task: to bring forward to the general public the importance of scientific discoveries, and why we need support for fundamental science so that we can work on some fundamental questions that will generate real game changers in the future. Take the transistor and liquid crystals: they were invented by physics and chemistry in the 1940s and 50s, and fifty years later they enable us to make smartphones, which completely changed our world.
Scientists work on extremely precise topics. Does that prevent them from having a global outlook on issues such as climate change or the economy?
B.F.: Well, because we have these kinds of discussions and because scientists now work across borders and team up with colleagues from different disciplines, we are capable of appreciating each other’s questions and problems and working together. Take building an artificial cell for example; it’s so complex that you need theoretical people, experimentalists, people from the fields of chemistry, physics and biology to address it from different angles. Which is also a great opportunity for us to learn each other’s different scientific languages.
Would you say that as a scientist, you are part of an international network?
B.F.: Yes, absolutely. It’s one of the benefits of science: you have a family all around the world! I always tell my students we don’t have borders: we have colleagues, friends, competitors, labs and students all around the world, and it’s really important that we preserve and maintain this international community of scholars. We actually have a real responsibility there, now more than ever.
You won the Solvay Prize and then the Nobel Prize. Has that changed anything in your work?
B.F.: The Solvay Prize was already a fantastic award, and I was deeply honored. And then the Nobel committee also recognized my work, I was honestly shocked, it’s something you can only dream of. Of course, I’m extremely proud, but it also gives me a unique opportunity to advocate science and education. So I take some time to go to schools and encourage teachers, because that’s really important to me. But I can’t accept every invitation I receive, unfortunately. I’m still also busy working with my students at my lab!
You worked for Shell at the start of your career. What influence did that experience have on your work?
B.F.: I worked for Shell 6 ½ years after my PhD, and that experience in industry shaped my mind in a way. Today, in my chemistry department, we focus mostly on fundamental research, but we’re also in contact with the industry. Most of our students go into industrial jobs, and I can tell them about that world because I know it. I think first of all that experience helped me go beyond my comfort zone at university, but also to appreciate how things work in a big corporation: it helped me see things from a different perspective. But I wanted to do fundamental research and work with students, so that’s why I am here today.
In today’s fast-paced world, do you think people have enough patience for fundamental research?
B.F.: That’s a real problem, you’re absolutely right. If there’s one important message today, it’s this: don’t only focus on short-term research, take time to think. If you asked me what my main problem is, I would say exactly that: not having enough time to think!
What would your message be to young chemists starting their career today?
B.F.: What I tell my students is: follow your dreams. You all have talent, go and use it where you will find energy. I also tell them that chemistry is a central science, so look at flanking disciplines because there will be a lot of developments across disciplines. Be good at what you do, but also keep your eye on what’s going on in physics, biology, materials, medicine, etc.