Porto Vecchio, stronghold of science? Interview with Stefano Fantoni

15.09.2020 – 10.00 – “For reasons as much geographical as historical, Trieste is unique and multicultural. The city has played a fundamental role in the relations between Western and Eastern Europe and in the same way has formed a natural connection between Europe and Asia…”. So, two years ago, the ESOF 2020 Champion Stefano Fantoni motivated the appointment of the Julian capital as the venue of the EuroScience Open Forum referring to the scientific context of Trieste and Friuli Venezia Giulia.
It was the ESOF 2020 Dossier of the Trieste International Foundation; and from those first, shy, steps the Convention has developed in its current form, while remaining faithful to its motto “Freedom for science and science for freedom”.

One month after the conclusion of ESOF 2020 and looking to an (uncertain) future, it is possible to summarize the experience of the Convention, trying to have an overall judgement.
The event takes on special importance this year, because after the cancellation of the Barcolana it was the last, great, international event in Trieste, considering the worsening of the health emergency.
In an attempt to take stock, Trieste All News interviewed ESOF Champion Stefano Fantoni: a look at the future not only of Trieste’s science, but of the entire city.

Would you like, as a first step, to summarise the experience of ESOF; now that after a month the memories have “settled” making a more objective judgement possible?

ESOF’s experience has been extraordinarily positive: positive attendance, positive feedback from the public and critics, positive overall organisation. Despite the short notice available, we managed to set up a “hybrid” ESOF2020, which worked as a model, we might say almost a “paradigm”, for subsequent events.
Of course, there were inevitable limits linked to the Covid-19 wave, but we can say that the new solution adopted paved the way for the future: indeed, even more so, it allowed us to have virtual guests that otherwise paradoxically we would not have had in the “physical” version.

Suffice it to say that the hybrid version we have experimented with is now being adopted by schools, with an alternation of “live” and computer-based lessons that is very effective, though expensive.
I confess that I feared possible cases of Covid-19, perhaps an outbreak; and instead it worked without any obstacles whatsoever. The emergency linked to the world pandemic has also made it possible to accentuate the informative aspect, which has taken on a central role.

The preparations for ESOF2 2020, already two years ago, had mentioned how the Convention would not be self-conclusive, but how there were plans to continue the experience with scientific bodies or ad hoc foundations. Has this continuity of action been achieved, with specific reference to a scientific collaboration that was aimed at the Balkans?

The project of a post ESOF body that would guarantee continuity beyond the event itself was already present previously, with a strong relationship not only with the Balkans, but also with Central Europe. From Austria, to Slovenia, to the Czech Republic. It is no coincidence that there is still talk of a body from the North Adriatic. My vision is that of a Summer Institute on the model of Santa Barbara, or Santa Fé that functions as an “attractor”, the heart of a stronghold of science in the Porto Vecchio.
It would be a concentration of high-level figures from the world of science, but without large numbers: four or five high-profile meetings, with thirty or forty experts, so no more than 200 people.
The Summer Institute, as the name suggests, would work on a seasonal basis and would guarantee that science to business which is nowadays a fundamental prerequisite for the growth of the economy.

It would also be an important move to attract the necessary attention at an international level to attract big companies to Porto Vecchio: Google, Amazon, Apple… It would function as a key project to attract those big players without which science to business would remain a dead letter.
The timing would also be immediate; we can start immediately and in fact we are already doing so, laying the foundations to move as soon as possible.
Finally, and it should not be forgotten also from the point of view of scientific education, this Summer Institute would be the first in the world to be founded on sustainability. It is no coincidence that environmental sustainability has been one of the major themes, alongside Covid-19, during the entire ESOF 2020.

Did the idea of using the Porto Vecchio appear from the beginning or was it a subsequent novelty?
What role did it play for ESOF 2020?

The Porto Vecchio in Trieste has always been a key element in winning the title of” city of science”. Traditionally ESOF has functioned as a growth driver ensuring the recovery of disused areas; remember the industrial area of Copenhagen 2014 or the city of Toulouse itself. Certainly, the warehouses of the Porto Vecchio do not have a scientific “specificity”; yet it should be remembered that when the port was “new” it operated with modern technologies still preserved in the restored buildings. After the inauguration of the Congress Centre I see the potential of a “stronghold of science” in the surrounding area that functions as a propeller for the overall recovery. Clearly the Port is large enough to guarantee a variety of uses.
My vision is that of a “Trieste Valley”, following the example of the American models; it is no coincidence that the ESOF model is inspired by them.

Do you think there is a danger in pushing science to business, with possible damage to basic research, or do the two elements go hand in hand?

This is a complex issue, but science to business should certainly not damage basic research, which remains a key step. It seems to me that many companies want to “innovate” without engaging in real scientific research. One cannot innovate without discovering something new. In turn, even the close connections between scientists and entrepreneurs should not favour the latter, taking away space for pure research. Many of the greatest discoveries in science have come about by chance and certainly not in pursuit of short-term goals.
The history of science is littered with examples of discoveries made “by chance”, disconnected from utilitarian logic. Consequently, the primary thrust remains basic research; after all, the students themselves learn first the theory, then move on to research.
On the other hand, the same balance with the logic of economics, with which one has to dialogue, remains difficult to achieve.

You were president of FEST at the time; considering the importance of dissemination for ESOF, can we say that that festival, together with Trieste Next (and many others), prepared the ground for ESOF?

Trieste Next and FEST — of which I was president between 2007 and 2008 — have undoubtedly played an important role, ensuring a “substratum” among the population, an interest in the dissemination of science that should not be underestimated. However, ESOF 2020 has a European scope, it is aimed — also in its academic format — abroad. These are different events.
Certainly, there has been a lot of preparatory work over the years in Trieste that has borne fruit in the occasion of ESOF 2020, ensuring a very strong interest on the part of the people of Trieste.

In your experience, do you believe that it is always possible to “communicate” science or do you believe that there is a level that cannot be disclosed because of the complexity of the subject or discipline?

I am convinced that disclosure must always be present in the life of a scientist: it is natural that, during the first years of a scientist’s career, he should focus on his research. But the world of science must stop speaking in “Latin”; if the researcher is not encouraged, it is natural that he remains in his ivory tower. It is necessary to communicate the results of one’s research with a language that is comprehensible to the masses. In my opinion, scientific dissemination and communication courses should be integrated during university years, so that they go hand in hand with one’s own studies. Dissemination is essential; a world-class scientist who is not able to explain (and justify) his research to relatives and friends is faced with a problem. There is no subject that cannot be explained.

Clearly, in some cases, the dissemination from the world of science to the world of journalism is likely to lead to trivialisation. And there are “borderline” arguments that are difficult to explain in detail. However, it is necessary to try; bearing in mind that this is a difficult balance.
The scientific language — the “Latin” of the scientist — is precise by its very nature, except in some cases of wide-ranging reflections; however, it does not lend itself to divulgation. It needs to be translated through the use of comparisons, metaphors, without of course vulgarizing it.
By making this passage we risk committing inaccuracies, but these are necessary to understand the general concept.

In this regard, what is your opinion on Scientific Museums?
In a while the Immaginario Scientifico will be (re)opened and you were the head of the Scientific Museums Commission.

I am a great supporter of Science Museums in Italy; among them of course the Science Museum, former Immaginario Scientifico, reborn in Warehouse 26. In particular, I think that the hands-on, interactive museums are the most suitable; and I hope that there will be a good synergy in this field with the Sea Museum in the adjacent area of Porto Vecchio. The Museum should never be something passive, limited to a collection of objects.
In this regard, I think that scientific museums work best when they address the younger generations, especially children; they educate them to curiosity, to want to know what the world is like. And the child — before schooling, which transmits a “certain” approach — is already a born scientist, he has that intuition, that “wanting to know” that makes him an excellent pupil. The important thing, in short, is to aim at the new generations.

ESOF has had a close relationship with universities, especially with the University of Trieste. And you have worked with Anvur (National Agency for the Evaluation of the University System and Research).
What is your opinion on the universities in Italy, in particular with reference to the phenomenon of the so-called “barony” and some “corporate” logics?

In fact, I was the first president of Anvur; and it should be noted that Italy was one of the last countries to introduce adequate evaluation criteria in universities, even preceded in this field by Poland. Now there is no longer the figure of the “emperor” professor on the chair, as there was in my day. The criteria for allocating funds are awarded on the basis of merit and the idea of rewarding those who work best, overcoming some corporate logic, is beginning to assert itself.
Personally, I am against any form of “barony”; and I was pleased to see that considerable progress has been made in this area, even though it is an ongoing work.

Returning to ESOF, what was the best moment of the event and what objectively was missing?

Undoubtedly both in the Opening and in the Closing Ceremony I appreciated how the institutions that presented a common line of thought were present; in particular the presence of the Minister of Economic Development. I did not have the opportunity to attend all the conferences, but I appreciated the one on Quantitative Computers and Big Data; a light of hope for an economic revival.
There is nothing that I think ESOF has missed, especially considering the situation…
Perhaps I would have appreciated more participation from young people, especially university students. I was hoping for more interest on their part and instead the reaction from the university youth world seemed very cold. But of course we are experiencing extraordinary circumstances, considering the current pandemic.

[Stefano Fantoni is a well-known nuclear physicist and astrophysicist. He received the Eugene Feenberg Medal for his contribution to Nuclear Physics in July 2007 with the development of the Fermi Hypernetted Chain Theory (FHNC). Noteworthy in the field of research, the development of a diagrammatic technique, known as Fantoni-Rosati (FR) cluster expansion technique, the Correlated Basis Function theory (CBF) and the development of a numerical simulation method for nuclear systems, known as Auxiliary Field Diffusion Monte Carlo (AFDMC). A convinced supporter of the need for greater dialogue between science and society, founder of the first Italian Master in Science Communication, in collaboration with SISSA. He is known both for his dissemination activities and for his research in the field, receiving the Kalinga prize from UNESCO in 2001. We should also mention the Piazzano Prize in 2002, the Pirelli International Prize in 2004 for the multimedia initiative “Ulysses in the Science Network”, the Capo d’Orlando Prize in 2007, the Rosa d’Argento Prize from the Trieste Trade Association for SISSA (2008) and the Barcola Prize from the city of Trieste (2010).
He was Director of SISSA from 2004 to 2010 and President of the International Foundation for the development of freedom of Science (FIT) in Trieste from 2008 to 2011 and from 2016 to date].

[Zeno Saracino]