“I learnt a lot and saw things from the other side. And they are different from there”.
“We need to be sensible when affirming in order that our statements do not seem much categorical because everything changes, and people will probably end not believing anything if they consider everything to be contradictory”.
“University is research, teaching and what Ortega y Gasset named ‘extensión universitaria’”, explains Abel Mariné Font, professor emeritus at the Department of Nutrition and Bromatology of the Faculty of Pharmacy in the University of Barcelona. Mariné (Barcelona, 1943) is member of the Nutrition and Food Safety Research Institute of the UB (INSA-UB), affiliated centre with the campus of international excellence Barcelona Knowledge Campus. He is also a distinguished expert on nutrition and food sciences, especially on the field of the biogenic amines and the polyamines.
Abel Mariné has also been director general of Universities of the Government of Catalonia (1986-1900), vice-president of the Interministerial Commision of Research and Technological Innovation (CIRIT) of the Government of Catalonia (1991-1993), and member of the Board of Experts on Food Safety of the World Health Organization (1984-1988). This year he received the III Ramon Turró Award for an excellent career in Nutrition conferred by the Catalan Centre for Nutrition of the Institute of Catalan Studies (CCNIEC), which distinguishes his scientific career and critical action in introducing food sciences in the media.
This text is an extract from the talk that he had with the professor M. Carmen Vidal, at the Department of Nutrition and Bromatology of the Faculty of Pharmacy. The dialogue is part of the video series entitled ’15 minutes with…’ published on UB’s website. You can watch the full talk on this link.
Pharmacy and Bromatology
I do not believe so much in vocations, I liked so many different areas, I swings from Chemistry to History, and finally I decided for Pharmacy. Why? Because it is a polyvalent degree; it has chemical topics, biological ones, and a socio sanitary application… I think that this aspect attracted my attention. I can say that I nearly liked every subject of the degree; if I tried Bromatology —the chair was of chemical analysis, bromatology and toxicology—, was mainly due to the professor Francisco Moreno. I remember him as a teacher who was able to make you enjoy even a practice or an analytical determination; this is something that the ones who have studied analytical chemistry know. And why did I choose Bromatology? Nutrition is a really important element in our lives; it has an obvious social dimension. I liked to begin with the analytical topics, and evolving then towards nutrition and food safety.
In my opinion, it is not ok. Society is in crisis, so the university too. However, the university I knew as a student in the late sixties, and as a teacher in the late seventies, was much worse. Teacher-student relationship has extremely changed: at that moment, it was distant, in each chair there was a male professor, not many female ones, and it is important to remark that this aspect has not been corrected yet. That changed and, on this sense, my generation is a lucky one because in the late sixties and the early seventies, the Spanish university system, and the Catalan one, expanded.
Maybe this is the opinion of an old teacher, but today we are immersed in a kind of ‘pedagogical inflation’. We lost ourselves dealing with ‘how’, and we have not taken enough care of ‘what’. If you know one thing and you really want to explain it, you succeed. However, today’s practice gets complicated by the use of an obtuse language about abilities, aptitudes and so on... Evidently, we must promote students’ initiative, but we have been already doing it since the sixties and the seventies. We gave homework to students, they had to look for literature and discuss the proposed topics and activities with the lecturer. We have not discovered any new thing. On the contrary, today, Bologna says simple and obvious things which must be promoted, but its application has been enlarged. Before Bologna, writing a subject programme meant to develop it in some pages, but today it can be considered an encyclopaedia that ends saying the same as the shorter one. We got lost in a claptrap that leads us nowhere. University is evolving; currently the contact between teacher and student is not valued. New technologies must be used, but a direct contact between teacher and student cannot be substituted. If there is not an active dialogue, the questions are not correct ones, nor the answers.
Teaching, research and management
In this institution, you must collaborate doing whatever you are asked to or whatever you like. I do not agree with that great number of professors-researchers who forget about the management. I agree that it is not necessary that everyone deals with the management, but someone has to do it. Personally, I performed actions outside the University which made me be far from research. Dealing with management, I learnt a lot and saw things from the other side. And they are different from there. It is not the same to ask for a grant than to give it.
Science and its dissemination
I have devoted a great part of my time to scientific dissemination, and I must admit I really like it. I consider that the topics related to nutrition are really important for our health, and in general a great number of people do not follow a healthy diet. Here is where the experts must raise our voices, to fight against those people who appear on TV recommending really strange diets. We cannot get tired; we must have hope of people listening to us. I believe in freedom, and in freedom of information, even if sometimes I think that there are things that shouldn’t be written down or said because they are not true. About nutrition and science, there are facts which are obvious and others which are uncertain. We need to be sensible when affirming in order that our statements do not seem much categorical because everything changes, and people will probably end not believing anything if they consider everything to be contradictory. Unfortunately, that is a little impossible.
The value that society places on scientists
I remember one sentence that my teacher, the Dr Moreno, told to me when I was offered a position in the University of Salamanca: “Look —he said—, as Salamanca is a small town, which has an ancient and prestigious University, professors are still someone there. In Barcelona, professors are not so well considered anymore”. I consider that society values and respects professors. Once, a journalist was asking for my opinion about some food topics, and he said to me: “The problem when speaking about food and nutrition to people is that they do not trust politicians or those who develop health policies, or even the enterprises. If they trust someone, and not so much, those are scientists, whose opinions are supposed to not depend on anything or anyone”.
University and enterprise
It is a long relationship even if not so many people remember it. Everyone knows the scientific Louis Pasteur by his contribution to microbiology. Perhaps, what people do not know is that his interest in microbes relied on giving solutions to some problems that some French beer businessmen had. In the sixties and seventies, our department of Bromatology and Toxicology and Chemical Analysis collaborated with enterprises, even if that was not considered in an official way. We learnt things. Today these collaborations are more formal, universities had foundations, etc. But the point is to determine to what extent an enterprise determines this relationship. Universities must not only consider profitable aspects; that is a dangerous trend.
The world of university research
Research is an essential function of universities, together with teaching and management. It is true that, especially in difficult economic times, the profit of research is really valued. We must not take in account only immediate profits because without basic science there is no progress. Michael Faraday, an English researcher widely known by his physics laws, was working on the electrical principles when a Treasury Minister asked him about the use of those sparks. “Look —Faraday answered—, probably, when time goes past people like you, Treasury ministers, will collect electricity taxes”. What I am trying to say is that, at the beginning, it can seem that things do not have any use, but in a long term they can be useful.
It is also important that professor won’t be interested in learning a new lesson. In other words, we cannot have knowledge of everything but our interests must be broad. An American caricature said “I’m an expert on kidney, but on right kidney…” It is only a caricature but sometimes this limit is reached. In my opinion, sometimes we reach this point because we want to develop too much research, and we forget other aspects. Here it influences also the fact that if you do not publish you are not well valued.