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From Explanation to Transformation

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Every month we will be featuring an article written by one of our team members about their fields of interest and what motivates them to change the world. For the first instalment of #ElephantsSpeak we have a post from our Director in Barcelona, Jesús Purroy.

Most of us who started a career in experimental sciences at 18 were driven by what Richard Feynman called “the pleasure of finding things out.” Scientists are into finding explanations to the world’s mysteries, and lifelong careers are spent attempting to answer a particular question. Every funding application includes a reference to some imminent practical use of that research project. Still, people who wear lab coats (or, the lucky ones, field gear) tend to be bored by the technicalities of patenting, technology transfer deals, business models, financial plans, and pitching to investors.

And yet, for the rest of society, except for those who are thrilled by science documentaries, what makes sense of science is not the explanations that it gives but its transformative effect. This requires a totally different kind of mental disposition, and many scientists experience the passage from explanation to transformation as giving up their youth goals. It was certainly my case, and although I was lucky to make a smooth, professional transition from post-doc to project manager and subsequent amazing jobs, it required some degree of reassessment of my goals and priorities. Also, as explainers, we were evaluated according to certain outcomes, and as transformers, different rules apply. It takes a while to get used to that, even with help from mentors.

Instead of the usual classification of research into basic and applied, I prefer to think of it as a continuum between explanations and transformations that feed off each other. This way, scientists and professionals from different backgrounds make progress towards understanding the world and changing it – hopefully for the better.