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RTD info logoMagazine on European Research N° 44 - February 2005   
 European science – from Nobel to Descartes
 A helping hand for fledgling firms
 What makes a man?
 The hidden face of violence
 Dialling the 112 lifeline

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Title  The double life of a citizen physicist

José Mariano Gago is an impassioned physicist who spent more than a decade as a researcher at Cern, the European particle physics laboratory. As Portugal’s Minister of Science and Technology for seven years and a committed European, he was one of the architects of the Lisbon objective that placed science and technology at the top of the EU agenda. Today, at the age of 57 and still involved in his country’s university life, he is an active campaigner for the relaunching of European research and the promotion of a new scientific culture rooted firmly in society.

José Mariano Gago
“I have wanted to be a physicist ever since I was a child. I wanted to understand matter, to know why it behaves in one way rather than another. As I looked at the world around me, I was also always asking myself the question: What lies behind the visible?” To explore this world, José Mariano Gago, born in Lisbon in 1948, decided to study engineering. At the time, in the late 1960s, Portugal was not only suffocating under Antonio Salazar’s interminable dictatorship, but also engaged in bloody conflicts in Africa. “There was a total lack of democracy. No political parties. And the colonial war weighed upon an entire generation of young people.”

After 1968, the student movement opposed the war, seeking to circulate credible information and to help those who wanted to avoid the draft. A committed citizen,   José Mariano was president of the student union at his school of engineering in Lisbon, and subsequently national coordinator of Portugal’s student movement. “I was lucky not to be arrested. Repression was increasing and a lot of my friends were in jail. Some were tortured. It was time to go into hiding and I secretly crossed the border to seek refuge in France, in 1972.”

At the scientific level, too, this was a good decision. Increasingly drawn to physics, the engineer Gago was accepted as a doctoral student at the Louis Leprince-Ringuet laboratory for high energy, which was part of Paris X, the very prestigious Ecole Polytechnique. “My thesis supervisor was Roberto Salmeron, a unique scientist and fascinating man.”  

In 1974 came the ‘Carnation Revolution’ (“it was such a joy to return to my country that was finally freed from its shackles”). But the young physicist was by now marked out for a European career. At the age of 28, José Mariano was appointed researcher at the ‘temple’ of European physics: Cern in Geneva (CH). 

Making physics matter
In the 1970s, particle physics was a pioneering field. “The world of atoms was new territory, ripe for exploration. New particles were being discovered and systematically listed. Gradually, we began to work on the interactions between them – the way one piece of matter is disturbed by another piece of matter. This led to many questions. Does it mean that one element ‘knows’ that another element exists? In what way does matter know itself and know the other? I learned to interpret, to search for data that did not yet exist. ‘Those who worked before you were brilliant and they have already got everything possible out of this equipment and these methods. That means you have to invent in order to discover.’ That is what I was told. These were extraordinary years for our understanding of the world and especially of the way all the different interactions link up as part of a whole.” 

At Cern, a melting pot of some of the best brains in Europe, an entire generation of physicists was marked by science’s commitment to the military nuclear age. “The debate on the notion of the social responsibility of science was important.” Behind his physicist’s passion, the former student leader remained keenly interested in questions of society. Alongside his research activities, he had become involved in the problem of science education and ensuring the widest possible access to it. In France, he campaigned to this effect by giving beginners courses in science for immigrant associations. In Switzerland, he taught at the Workers’ University in Geneva. “There were people there of all occupations, manual workers and office staff, including some who already knew a great deal but wanted to know more. I wrote a book on popular education and I believe that, at one point, I considered aiming my career in that direction.”  

Governing science policy
In fact, his change of course was not as radical as all that and José Mariano Gago never ceased leading the double life of scientist and citizen, participating in debates, attending meetings, organising scientific exhibitions and striving at every opportunity for science to become, once again, an integral part of culture and for this culture to be communicated and shared. “The sharing of knowledge is quite simply a question of democracy and even of justice.”

Life at Cern had not cut him off from scientific developments in his own country. He made frequent visits there, founded the Laboratory for Experimental Particle Physics (LIP), organised Portugal’s membership of Cern and, in the late 1980s, headed his country’s National Council for Science and Technology. 

At the beginning of the 1990s, José Mariano Gago decided to return to Lisbon. His future would be one of increasing involvement in developing and implementing science policy. In 1995, the Socialist Prime Minister asked him to head the new Ministry of Science and Technology. “Although a Socialist, I am not a member of any political party. I accepted the offer because it clearly brought responsibilities in the field of science education. I was able to exercise my mandate under very favourable conditions. During the seven years I was there, the research budget was increased by 15% every year. Five percent of the budget was allocated to actions to promote scientific culture. The Ciência Viva(1) movement, which was launched at the time, is, I believe, one of the greatest European successes in promoting scientific culture.” 

In this domain so close to his heart, Gago believed in ‘proximity’. Not the researcher on the TV screen but the researcher, at a science museum or exhibition, meeting people at a debate or conference, or even in the laboratory. “It is essential for links to be forged between scientists and non-scientists. For that, you need people committed to the cause, who know how to act with generosity in the interests of scientific culture. In Portugal, this mobilisation is now quite strong.”  

Working for Europe
Profoundly European, Minister Gago devoted all his energy to preparing Portugal’s EU presidency. “We laid the basis for what has become the European programme for the information society. At the beginning of our presidency, the new Commissioner Philippe Busquin launched the idea of   the European Research Area. In March 2000, at the Lisbon Summit, we succeeded for the first time in having science and technology placed at the top of the political agenda and adopted the Lisbon objective to this effect.” This set a strategic course to which the EU as a whole continues to adhere.

José Mariano Gago’s European advocacy is an increasingly important area of his life. In addition to his involvement in the ‘Information Society’ initiative (he coordinates its evaluation under the Framework Programme), he headed the High Level Group on Human Resources for Science and Technology in Europe, whose constructive conclusions were published at the beginning of 2005. "This subject represents an exceptional opportunity for a common European policy, as managing human potential is, no doubt, the most critical point of all for the long-term development of European science.” 

Creativity and credibility
For the past year, Gago has been an ardent champion of the European Research Council (ERC) – an essential initiative in giving new impetus to the fundamental sciences. “The mechanisms of financing, supporting and evaluating research in Europe require major reform. In this area, much can be learned, in terms of responsibility and flexibility, from the United States, particularly its experience with such bodies as the National Science Foundation.” Gago is coordinator of the Initiative for Science in Europe (ISE), an international platform of all the ERC partners.(2)

"The fact that scientists and institutions are, today, insisting on the European dimension of research is encouraging. Previously, people thought in terms of compartmentalised national programmes.” This tireless ‘citizen scientist’ also heads the International Risk Governance Council (IRGC), which was set up at the initiative of the Swiss Government. Under its umbrella, governments, companies and scientists from developed and developing countries work together to improve the international management of major risks.

“When I was in government, I sought to understand the increasingly close relations between science policy and society, in particular through the responsibilities assumed by the experts and industrialists in public risk management. The major problems (epidemics, natural disasters, technological threats, etc.) have become a field of social controversy. The general public expect serious and honest answers from science. The moral integrity of researchers is a major challenge and the politicians must respond to this by strengthening the scientific institutions and their independence. Truth, controversy, communication, independence, control over decision-making, information and knowledge all require a more advanced scientific and technical culture. I spend much of my time grappling with such questions.”  

(1) Launched in 1996, Ciência Viva is an initiative of the Portuguese Ministry of Science and Technology that aims to promote scientific culture among the general population. Its excellent website, in English and Portuguese, provides detailed information on current events and exhibitions, programmes to increase awareness of science among young people, a diary of events, etc. It also has a discussion forum and a series of links.
(2) Europe’s principal scientific societies, the European Science Foundation, the European Association of Universities, Euroscience, the Nobel Prizes group, EMBL, EMBO, the ESO, etc.