Esther Paniagua is an independent science journalist working for the main newspapers in Spain – El País and El Mundo – as well as its Sunday magazines. She also contributes to National Geographic and Muy Interesante magazines and other media outlets. Esther has been recently awarded the Vodafone Journalism Prize and was a finalist of the European Science Writer of the Year Award in 2017. She was also named Global Shaper by the World Economic Forum, among other acknowledgements.
1. Why did you choose to become a science journalist?
In fact, it was quite haphazard. When I started to study journalism at university I realized that I needed to specialize in a particular area. I was interested in science and environmental issues and aware of the importance of a society with a high scientific culture so I thought this specific area could be the one for my specialization. At that time, I heard about a fellowship for a course on environmental journalism at my university. I was selected and when the course ended I decided to deepen my knowledge by enrolling in a more comprehensive programme of scientific, technological, health and environmental journalism. The summer following this course, I got my first internship with the science section of a national newspaper and have been working as a science journalist since then.
2. What role do science and science communication play in your country?
In Spain we have great minds and very talented scientists who are unfortunately forced to migrate in pursuit of opportunities. Many of them work, in fact, at the most prestigious research institutions around the world. Not surprisingly, the Spanish microbiologist Francis Mojica is the discoverer of CRISPR: one of the greatest advances in microbiology, and almost certainly in biology, in recent history.
The scientific community in Spain has been claiming brain drain and constant cuts on R&D budgets and the media play a key role in reflecting this situation but all efforts seem to be in vain.
3. What are the main challenges of science journalism in your country?
40% of the Spanish population is very interested in science, according to this year’s FECYT Societal Science Perception Survey. However, almost half of the population perceive their scientific education as poor. Considering this and the fact that people are not joining the scientists in pushing the government to address the damaged situation of R+D in Spain, I think we may be doing something wrong. For instance, the TV is still the main media source for information about science in Spain but happens to be the one that has the less science information or dissemination slots. Also, in printed media and, above all, digital media, there is more space for “science” curiosities than for “real” science (fortunately with a few exceptions).
4. Where do you see the big societal transformations in the future? What scientific research/discovery will change our world?
I think immunology will be a disruptive and differential way to treat diseases (cancer, among others); genetics will open a wide range of possibilities from avoiding hereditary diseases to delivering personalized treatments or developing resistant and cheap crops to feed everybody; artificial intelligence will speed up knowledge use and its availability as well as the efficiency and efficacy of processes (with numberless applications), and it will expand our human capacity and the way we communicate with machines; graphene and renewable sources of energy will allow to decarbonize the power sector…
5. What book, movie or song has radically changed your perspective? And why?
If I had to choose one film it would be ‘What the Bleep Do We Know!?’, a documentary (or better said “mockumentary”) that tries to justify pseudoscientific theories with a metaphysical message by mixing quantum physics with spirituality in a sort of ‘quantum mysticism’. The fact that many people in my surroundings appeared (and still appear) to believe the theories exposed in the mockumentary and its significant success generated a strong need to fight against misinformation, charlatanism and pseudoscience.