Vladimir de Semir: "Barcelona's main industry is scientific, technological, university and medical"

Vladimir Semir en un bosc.
12/09/2023 - 15:50 h - Science Ajuntament de Barcelona

He has been editor-in-chief of Science and Technology at La Vanguardia, councillor of the City of Knowledge in Barcelona, creator of the first master’s degree in science communication in the country, and much more. During his time at the City Council, Vladimir de Semir promoted the Barcelona Science programme. With him we review his prolific career and talk about the evolution of science journalism in the city and its area of influence, among many other topics.

Where does your vocation come from?

Thinking, knowing, reading and writing were the keys to an intense education in the arts and sciences, diverse in cultures, and also in four languages (German, Spanish, French and English) with which I graduated at the age of 14 as an elementary school-leaver at the Swiss School, bearing in mind that the language of instruction was German. Even today, I still remember the intensity and enthusiasm with which we were made to think and discover the world – “you can only see what you know”, says a German proverb – by the successive Swiss teachers I had, as well as the Spanish philosophy and literature teacher, an extraordinary Asunción Sender (sister of the writer Ramón J. Sender), the amusing and eventful physics and chemistry classes of Rufino Bernabeu, the dense but instructive translations from Latin and, above all, the Spanish course in which we were constantly reading, writing and reflecting deeply on the language. I have always thought that I have largely lived off the intellectual income from all that I learned at that early stage of my life.

At what point did you open your eyes to science?

At that moment I did not know how to appreciate the premonitory scope of a comment by my Spanish teacher, Manuel Gutiérrez, when he returned one of the frequent essays he forced us to write and in which he had given me a 10, a maximum score he did not usually lavish given his level of demand: “Vladi, maybe one day you will make a living writing”. That same teacher from my basic training stage, Guti, made us prepare and give our first lecture in front of our classmates. We were 11 years old… The subject I chose and on which I gave my first “public” lecture was: the Solar System. I think that the destiny of my future professional life based on writing and science was marked at that time: to be a science journalist. At University, I studied Mathematical Sciences, but I didn’t finish my degree because I got married and became a father at a very young age (22) and I had to devote myself to teaching in order to earn a living. Shortly afterwards, by pure chance, I became a regional correspondent for La Vanguardia and finally joined the newspaper. The foundations were laid for what was to come.

And what came next?

In 1981 the Science Museum of the La Caixa Foundation in Barcelona was founded, and shortly afterwards the physicist Jorge Wagensberg joined it as its conspicuous director. Wagensberg had been a classmate and friend since our childhood at the Swiss School in Barcelona. As time went by, we continued to see each other on a regular basis, and during a lunch in 1982, Wagensberg suggested to me that “La Vanguardia should pay special attention to popularising science, it is a subject of great interest to the public… Why don’t you propose the creation of a Science section?”.

And you took his advice.

That comment made a light bulb go off in me… After working in local news and Catalan politics, I was then immersed in the technological change of the newspaper with the transition from lead to bits, that is, from linotype to computers. I continued to write the occasional article, but my activity as a journalist was on the way to disappearing to become a publishing technologist. But I didn’t really want to lose my journalist status because the truth is that what motivated me most – and still does – was writing and telling stories. I sensed that Wagensberg’s proposal, my situation at that time at the newspaper and my personal training and enthusiasm could come together, and so I told Lluís Foix, then editor-in-chief, who was in the midst of the newspaper’s restructuring and modernisation phase, and he was very receptive to the idea.

What did you propose?

To create specific science pages in the newspaper. Foix, who had been a correspondent in the United States, was directly familiar with the evolution of The New York Times in the 1970s. Among the many entrepreneurial initiatives that were taken was one that was decisive for the consolidation of science journalism in the New York paper and indeed worldwide. One of the keys to the success of the relaunch of the newspaper, which had suffered the crisis of competition from television in the media space, was the decision to incorporate weekly thematic supplements to increase the news interest of potential readers, establish new bridges of loyalty among the public and also open up new advertising markets. Among them, a weekly section dedicated to science every Tuesday, thus Science Times was born on 14 November 1978.

And you reserved a few pages of the journal for science.

Not exactly. In the case of La Vanguardia, there was another really key factor that finally led to the creation of a science supplement in the newspaper. At that time, the Sunday edition could not absorb all the advertising demand that aspired – for a fee, of course – to be inserted in its pages. The combination of all these factors led to the decision to create Sunday pages devoted to science, which incorporated the traditional medicine page that Dr Lluís Daufí had been producing for more than ten years. These pages specialised in science, medicine and the environment and their content could be slightly timeless (the notebook was closed and printed in advance).

In other words, a supplement.

Exactly. This is how the first Science supplement of La Vanguardia was born on 10 October 1982. Jorge Wagensberg was its first external collaborator. A very significant feature was that, for the first time in the history of the newspaper, this informative space was directed by a journalist who was part of the editorial staff and not by a scientist or doctor who collaborated as an external science writer. This was the first time that a section specialising in science journalism had been created, and from the outset the philosophy of these special pages was that journalists, scientists and doctors should work closely together to complement the criteria of rigour, amenity and topicality. This dual status that I assumed of being both a science journalist and an editorial technologist led Lluís Foix to appoint me editor-in-chief of Science and Technology, my third professional leap in the newspaper’s professional category, and which also meant that science issues acquired the status of their own section in a Spanish newspaper for the first time.

What was the impact of this supplement?

These Sunday pages had a wide impact on the scientific world in Catalonia and Spain, as for the first time scientists from universities and research centres all over Spain could collaborate extensively with their articles. The three or four pages of the early days evolved according to the advertising to be inserted and even became 24 pages (a record!), also jumping to the colour of the corresponding notebook and incorporating a graphic illustrator of great impact and creativity for his ability to synthesise ideas and scientific topics, Fernando Krahn, whose contributions were decisive in making the section more attractive. All this, together with the fact that they were published on the newspaper’s main day of circulation, made this supplement, at first more or less unstructured – the pagination always depended on the advertising it had to absorb – very popular among readers and demonstrated that a completely new, high quality, informative offer of a completely new subject, maintained Sunday after Sunday, ended up creating a demand among readers.

How do you think science communication has evolved since the supplement first appeared?

The fruitful stage in the interaction between science and journalism in the editorial staff of La Vanguardia led to the creation of a de facto school of science communication, both for the many scientists who collaborated in these specialised pages of the newspaper and for the young journalists who were trained during those years in the science supplement of La Vanguardia. Indeed, the close and long-standing relationship that the team of journalists and scientists maintained during those years around the Science and Medicine supplements also led to continuous reflection on how to improve both scientific information and dissemination itself. Proof of this was the convening in May 1990 of an important international symposium on science journalism in Barcelona, which was held at the School of Journalists and was the result of a joint initiative with the director of the Dr. Antonio Esteve Foundation, Sergi Erill. This concern to improve and consolidate science journalism and, in general, the popularisation of science also led to the creation in 1990 of the Catalan Association of Science Journalism, of which I became the founding president. The organisation continues its work today, renamed the Catalan Association of Science Communication and is a member of the World Federation of Science Journalists.

Was it then that you made the leap to the academic world?

That was the time of my consolidation as a scientific journalist, which also led me to an important personal projection, first in the academic world and later also in the political world. In fact, this process was transferred to the academic field when the Faculty of Journalism was created in 1992 at the then nascent Pompeu Fabra University and I became an associate lecturer in science journalism in the 1993-1994 academic year. Thanks to the initial invitation of the founder of the Faculty of Journalism at Pompeu Fabra University, Josep Maria Casasús, who allowed me to join the academic world as an associate lecturer in Science Journalism in the Faculty of Communication from the 1993-1994 academic year. This was the starting point for hitherto unpublished initiatives that initially had the support of the university’s founding rector, Enric Argullol, and those who succeeded him. First, the creation of the Science Communication Observatory in the Faculty of Communication -a pioneering academic centre in Spain, and even in Europe, for the analysis of the transmission of science to society- and, more recently, the Centre for the Study of Science, Communication and Society in the Faculty of Experimental Sciences. As well as a master’s degree in Scientific, Medical and Environmental Communication, a professional postgraduate course that is about to celebrate 30 years of uninterrupted existence (!) and which has become an international reference for the Pompeu Fabra University in the field of scientific communication, popularisation and journalism.

What was the impact of the Master’s?

In this case too, supply ended up creating demand, as was the case with the La Vanguardia supplement. Hundreds of students from all over the world have been trained in the world of science communication, popularisation and journalism and have joined the communication offices of scientific centres and different platforms in the publishing and museum world, with spectacular results: according to the UPF’s own monitoring data, the employment rate of our students is 85% six months and 100% one year after completing the master’s degree. I modestly believe that the master’s degree – like the science supplement in its day – has marked a before and after in the history of journalism, popularisation and science communication. And I am very satisfied.

And how did you make the leap into politics? This year, the City Council has commemorated, with a book, the 15 years of the Barcelona Science programme, of which you were the driving force.

That projection and social influence from the newspaper also had its political facet, because all the informative and cultural “agitation” around the Science supplement of La Vanguardia influenced the Generalitat de Catalunya to propose in 1988 the creation, on the initiative of the Minister of Culture at the time, Joan Guitart, of a Commission for the Stimulation of Scientific Culture – of which I was a member – and which developed for several years an innovative and fruitful programme in favour of science being integrated into the world of culture until the Minister was replaced in 1996. It was a pity that this pioneering political initiative in our country was cut short, although it was partly continued by the Catalan Foundation for Research and Innovation. 

In 1997, Joan Clos became Mayor of Barcelona, replacing Pasqual Maragall. Easter 1999, a couple of months before the municipal elections… The phone rings – hands-free – while I’m driving: “Mr Semir? I’m calling from the mayor’s office. Mr Clos would like to speak to you”. The next day I was sitting in front of the mayor in his office in Plaça Sant Jaume in Barcelona.

How did this happen?

My only contact with Joan Clos had been some time before at a celebration for a mutual friend, Jordi Camí. Clos had approached me and we had discussed together issues related to science, technology and the Science supplement of La Vanguardia. This apparently unimportant conversation took on its full meaning that morning in the mayor’s office: “Vladimir, I’m drawing up the electoral list and I’d like you to join it”. I was perplexed – I would never have imagined such a thing! We had a long conversation about his projects, his strategic model for the city, how I fit into all this and the role he had in store for me in his team if I accepted his proposal. Weeks later, on 29 April, a day before the proclamation of the electoral lists, La Vanguardia explained what the future mayor had in store for me: “Clos signs journalist Vladimir de Semir for his City of Knowledge“.

What did this imply?

It had urban implications such as the materialisation of the 22@ district, the strengthening of the university, scientific and medical world and that society – local and international – understood what it meant for a city like Barcelona to be a beacon of the knowledge society. A city known throughout the world for its tourist attraction and its Olympic Games and which now focused the world’s interest on its commitment to science and, in general, knowledge. It seems that the message was immediately understood; Newsweek magazine dedicated an article to us entitled: Barcelona, city of beauty and brains. At that time, not only did its beauty and attractiveness continue to promote the city, but it was also imbued with the intelligence of its society. I think this Newsweek headline best sums up what the “Barcelona, City of Knowledge” project represented. It was an exciting eight years, first as councillor for the City of Knowledge and then in a second term as commissioner, which culminated in 2007 with the Year of Science in Barcelona (and throughout Spain, because the Zapatero government “bought” the idea and extended it to the whole country). A real luxury for a science journalist!

A City of Knowledge department was a new concept. What was its relationship with the rest of the institution?

“We are carrying forward the City of Knowledge brand, which means revaluing what there is in the city related to science, culture, the university… and promoting it, while transforming the city urbanistically into a knowledge society, is an offer that no one who loves the city can refuse”, I remember saying in the first interview I was given as a candidate. It was undoubtedly a singular project for a department, but in reality it was a totally transversal programme for the whole City Council and we worked in coordination with most of the departments. The atmosphere was stimulating, and the truth is that I felt very comfortable with my colleagues, whether they were from the socialist party or independent, like me. Even with the other political forces, whether they were part of the municipal government or the opposition. In fact, they all supported, with their respective nuances, the “Barcelona of Knowledge” brand. I consider myself very fortunate to have lived and shared these years with them, and I am still friends with many of them, of all political colours.

What actions did you undertake that are still underway?

In the material aspect, there are many urban planning projects that were set in motion at the time, from 22@ and the expansion/establishment of the university world in Poblenou and in the Forum area, which we helped to make a reality. And in terms of scientific cultural promotion, I think it is difficult to explain them all because there are many that survive, from the Science Festival to the Escolab programme. Also, the incorporation of cycles of scientific dissemination in the municipal libraries and having specialised one of them in scientific subjects: the Sagrada Familia-Josep Maria Ainaud Library in Lasarte. The dinners with stars at the Fabra Observatory, the guide to Walks through Scientific Barcelona… And, of course, the creation and consolidation of the “Barcelona Science” brand.

How do you think subsequent governments have taken over from that first impulse?

I will allow myself to say that Joan Clos was a singular and exceptional mayor, unjustly mistreated by public opinion and perhaps misunderstood by many, either self-interestedly or disinterestedly. He liked to read the Nobel Prize winner in Physics Sheldon Glashow, the cognitive scientist Steven Pinker or the philosopher of science Daniel Dennet, among many others, and before winning the elections and succeeding the Olympic mayor Pasqual Maragall with the best result in the history of the city of Barcelona, he had made his intention very clear: “The concepts of the scientific and the humanistic are no longer so differentiated today. But it is true that I would like to stimulate Barcelona’s scientific role. I would be concerned if the city were to miss the boat in terms of biotechnologies or telecommunications, and I would also be delighted to contribute to the popularisation of science. In fact, I would be delighted to contribute to a reconciliation of the public with knowledge, which seems to me to be one of the most urgent challenges of our time. (El País, 21 September 1997)

We all know that political projects depend very much on the people behind them and on the economic context and political-social casuistry of the specific moment in which they are carried out. At each stage there are certain priorities or others. The first was exceptional in laying the foundations for the transformation of an eminently tourist city, post-Olympic and with post-industrial after-effects, into a city of the knowledge society. Successive municipal governments have maintained the beauty and brains brand and the flame is still burning, but naturally the priorities may be different at any given time. This is logical. I am satisfied and proud of my city, then and now.

How do you see Barcelona today in terms of promoting science?

I am not going to go into the problems the city has with the management of one of its main sources of economic activity, tourism, and what it means for those of us who live or want to continue living there. But I would like to point out and remember that its main “industry” is the scientific-technological-university-medical one, but no doubt many do not perceive this to be the case. We must continue to promote the “Barcelona, City of Knowledge” or “Barcelona Science” brand, both for locals and foreigners. Barcelona is one of the scientific hubs of the Mediterranean and Europe. We must never forget this and continue to foster talent, both local and imported. We must not let our guard down in this respect.