Interview with Prof. José Manuel Barandiaran, director of BCMaterialsSaturday, 24 December, 2011
Q: You arrived at the field of magnetism and materials more than 30 years ago, since then you have published more than 300 papers, organized numerous conferences, you have carried out your research at prestigious universities (such as MIT and Cambridge), you have supervised a dozen PhD thesis… How did it all begin and how did the field evolve during your large career?
R: When I started on research, at the graduation thesis (tesina), the means were really scarce. Most of the instruments were home made and laboratories, even in the University Complutense that was reputed to be the best in all Spain, seemed third world level, as compared with French or British ones. Attending an international conference was a kind of an adventure, both from administrative and scientific reasons. Take into account that we were under Franco’s dictatorship!
This situation lasted through the first years of the democracy. I remember that, at the University of the Basque Country, we had to supervise the PhDs to our own colleagues while still finishing our own. That was because there was nobody to supervise or even to carry out any kind of research in the new born Universities, as it was ours.
Since then the evolution has been impressive. By the time I became full professor in Bilbao, there was a reasonable research funding and many young researchers within the same Faculty of Sciences and in the neighbour University of Cantabria. Thanks to them we started growing in a very thought team of motivated people and high quality scientific infrastructure. Today, we are in the first rank of research. Not only we attend regularly international conferences, but also chair them, and get foreign researchers that wish to use our equipment and expertise for their research, because they have not such facilities and know-how at their home universities and research centers.
How did your career lead to the creation of this research center?
Some years ago, we were in a good position for research, but rather limited by administrative constraints and the sub-critical size of our research groups. The international landscape was changing rapidly and integrating multidisciplinary research within medium to large size Institutes. That was the natural way to make progress, and such institutions started being created in the Basque Country too, as Cooperative Research Centers (CIC), Basque Excellence Research Centers (BERC) and the Ikerbasque Foundation for Science itself appeared. Unfortunately the first such institutes were created with a marginal, if any, contribution from the University, which concentrates about 70% of the research production of the Basque Country. Some colleagues from University thought that we could launch an attractive project starting with high level research groups already operating at University, and extending the project to international researchers in a way that is not possible today within the University itself. We were lucky that the Basque Government was receptive to the project and it received good international evaluation, so finally we got it approved!
When thinking about research and innovation it is generally information technology, space shuttles and the like what comes to our minds … but we rarely think on the materials that make all these possible. What is still left to be known about the nature, structure and possibilities of materials?
Today it’s fully acknowledged that materials are at the basis of the well-being and advancement of society, and there is a lot to improve in Materials Science and Technology. But, instead of making a long statement about this, let me recall the recent “Materials Genome Initiative for Global Competitiveness“, put forward by the National Science Foundation in USA, that will, as they claim, “revolutionize our approach to materials research and engineering”.
Materials are the ultimate support of any technology, from memory devices in electronics to cloths and building structures. By making progress on Material Science and Technology we are opening opportunities in almost any other field of technology, making it possible to have smaller, cheaper, stronger, smarter and energetically more efficient implementation for any idea.
There is a say that states that, in times of crisis, it is better to invest on libraries than granaries. Is research a necessary investment for times of economic uncertainty?
Sure! If we want to find not only a solution to the present critical economic situation but a worldwide sustainable development, we need a lot more research in all fields of human activity, and in particular in energy production, storage and saving, and materials’ replacement and recycling.
How would you define research excellence?
Excellence in research is easily defined as that having international recognition, getting results that are published in the best research journals or give rise to world wide patents, and attracting high quality foreign researchers that are willing to participate in it.
The Basque Country has made a strong investment in research and innovation with the creation of three new research centers of excellence being the Basque Center for Applications & Nanostructures as one of them. What are the benefits for the Basque society?
If we can reach the first ranks in research, not only can we produce scientific results that help developing the technology and improving the productivity of the Basque Industry, but we can also train Basque young researchers to improve the overall scientific and technological level of our country and incorporate foreign researchers that will share with us their experience and knowledge.
The University of the Basque Country has more than 30 years of history… How does this research center fit into the UPV/EHU and within the research context of the Basque Country?
I already tried to put in context the Center within the activity of the Basque Country and in the University in particular, but let me elaborate further on that.
The University of the Basque Country has an excellent output in Materials Science research, but the number of groups and the distribution between different Departments and Campuses make it difficult to integrate multidisciplinary research in a single organization. There are certainly a few centers in Gipuzkoa (San Sebastián) that include University and external researchers, and are devoted to some specific kind of materials, mostly polymers, but nothing was available in Biscay. In that sense, the creation of the BCMaterials is filling a gap between the University’s internal organization and the external demand on current research coming from technological centers, public institutions and private companies. Coming from the University, we shall incorporate the most active researchers in Materials of Biscay, and make extensive use of the facilities from Campus. This permits to optimize the investments in equipment, library, workshops, etc. and to benefit from the collaboration between the Center and other University groups and services.
On the other hand, we will be involved in a special type of Materials, but no fully constricted to a single kind of them, like polymers or metals or others. Our aim is to attack many kinds of functional and multifunctional materials, as those making part of the ACTIMAT project, sponsored by the Industry Department of the Basque Government, and appearing in other projects related to Energy, Biomedicine or Nanotechnology. Within that framework, we will collaborate with a number of technological centers, some companies and the private University of Mondragon, interacting with most of the research centers in Biscay and the Basque Country.
There are more living scientist than the sum of all the rest of researchers in the history of humankind. At the same time science has become a transnational and global endeavour … What are the advantages and appeals of the BCMaterials for international researchers?
We have not started yet but the new of the forthcoming opening of the center expanded in meetings and it has attracted already many researchers. Our aim is to make an international call stating the research lines open at present and inviting senior and junior researchers to join us or to propose a new and appealing research line. The present team of highly qualified University researchers, which are already committed with the start-up of the center, seems already appealing for foreign people.
What are the main research lines of the Center? Will they have any immediate outcome?
Three main research lines with some sub-lines are to be implemented in a first step. Those are: a) Active (Smart) Materials, including: Ferromagnetic Shape Memory Alloys, Smart Polymers and Hybrid multiferroic materials. b) Nanomagnetism, divided into Magnetic Nanoparticles and Magnetic Nanostructures and c) Advanced Functional Materials, like: Materials for Energy, for Sensors and for Particle Accelerators.
We don’t think immediateness is a desired goal in the kind of research we want to carry out. The aim is, in fact, to develop new materials, understand them, and, if possible, try to incorporate them in new structures or devices. The application, if any, is but the last step. However, we already have some materials and devices that are ready for prototype development and could eventually lead to applications in commercial sensors or actuators. But the final chance to get a product in the market is a combination of good qualities with technical, economical and even political opportunities. Who knows!