CNIO, an example for gender equality in research

The Impact Dialogues by Koldo Echebarria

Koldo Echebarria, director general of Esade Business and Law School, talks with Maria A. Blasco, scientific director at the Spanish National Cancer Research Centre (CNIO), about the fight against Covid-19, leadership, equality and research.


Koldo Echebarria: Included amongst the 20th century’s greatest scientific achievements are milestones such as nuclear energy and space exploration, but also medical advancements such as the eradication of smallpox, reducing the infant mortality rate and the discovery and study of DNA, the inception of numerous treatments. However, despite changing the lives of millions of people, these advances occurred away from the spotlights and were the result of years and even decades of work by several generations of scientists.

The world health crisis provoked by Covid-19 has turned humanity’s gaze to the scientists studying this new disease as they race against the clock to develop effective treatments and vaccines to combat it. From working with scarce resources and even less public recognition, biomedical research centres have gone on to receive broad support in the fight against Covid-19, and their findings have been celebrated around the world.

But, what has it been like to lead one of the world’s best biomedical research centres in the middle of this pandemic? For ten years, Maria Blasco has served as the scientific director of the Spanish National Cancer Research Centre (CNIO), a pioneering group that has dedicated its talent and experience to find responses to combat this new coronavirus since its outbreak, and all without abandoning the work carried out for more than 20 years: fighting against cancer, one of the leading causes of death in our society.

As if all this were not enough, Maria Blasco also wants the CNIO to serve as a reference for the projection of female talent. With her leadership and example, nearly half of the group’s scientific projects are led by women who also represent nearly 70% of its research staff. We’re going to talk with her today about the fight against Covid-19 but also about leadership, equality and research. Without these elements, building a better society would be impossible.

We’re here today with María Blasco, the scientific director of the Spanish National Cancer Research Centre (CNIO). My sense is that, if Covid has become the emergency these days, you have been dealing with another emergency for many years, because cancer is a deadly disease that kills a lot of people and has been with us for a long time. How do you see this relation between the emergency, the need to save lives, and science?

Maria Blasco: Well, I think they’re completely different things. I think that science, of course, is more important than ever, and we’re seeing that the solution to this global crisis is scientific. We’ve seen this from the outset. Just a few weeks after a new pneumonia was detected in Wuhan, scientists quickly found the underlying cause. We have to remember that, for example, with AIDS, which emerged not that long ago, in the 80s, it took two years to find the pathogen responsible, but this time it was a question of weeks. And, lastly, the new vaccines have been developed in record time.

Science is more important than ever, and we’re seeing that the solution to this global crisis is scientific

Fortunately, all this has gone much faster, and this is helping to save a lot of lives. Despite the fact that a lot of people have unfortunately died, it would have been much worse without science.

Koldo Echebarria: Do you expect this will serve to vindicate science, that we will be able to understand it better, dedicate more resources, value scientific work even more?

Maria Blasco: I think it’s hard to believe that we still have to vindicate science today, because, in the end, it’s what solves problems, not just medical ones, but all types of problems. Our society necessarily implies scientific development, and, in the future, it will be even more important, I think. But, yes, I hope that citizens at least see where the solutions come from. I even think that we should pay even greater attention to science than we currently do, because science, from the beginning, has been very clear in terms of how this virus is transmitted, that it’s airborne, urging people to wear facemasks, a series of things that have lagged behind. Too much time has transpired between scientific discoveries and their application in terms of policies to control Covid.

Koldo Echebarria: In terms of policies, what takeaways are there? Do you think we should depend on or trust scientists more or that scientists should be able to make certain decisions? Or do you think there is a coordination problem between politicians and scientists? How have you all experienced this? How do you see this issue?

Maria Blasco: Well, I think that a medical problem, ultimately, is a scientific problem. In biomedicine, decisions have to be heavily influenced by what we know about this virus and how it’s produced. Consequently, I think, in this respect, I would have liked to have seen political decisions that were more in line with the science, for example, with the use of facemasks, the type of facemasks. With time, we’re seeing what hasn’t been done right and what we should have done differently.

It’s hard to believe that we still have to vindicate science today, because, in the end, it’s what solves problems, not just medical ones, but all types of problems

Koldo Echebarria: Completely. Your argument is, a bit, that science has been ahead of politics and that politics hasn’t included science enough in decision-making, right?

Maria Blasco: Yes. We’re also seeing this now with the vaccines. Unfortunately, there was no coordination… All that was necessary, desirable to see… Who gets vaccinated to reach this point… Now, we’re looking at "see who has been vaccinated or not," if there are extra doses of the vaccine. Clearly, no matter what’s done, it has to be through decisions based on science and medicine, not on politics.

Koldo Echebarria: Let’s talk about another issue related to science and that’s also important, especially for those of us in a university institution. One of the big issues in universities is obviously scientific output. However, at times, we see that this scientific output and teaching aren’t always well-aligned. How do you see this? For you, what is the ideal way to integrate science, teaching and learning at universities?

Maria Blasco: We don’t currently have any Nobel Prize winners in Spain. But at a university like Cambridge or, in the United States, you can be at university and have a Nobel Prize winner teaching you… And you have the chance to talk with that person. Those are the good universities. That is the university where I would like to go.

I think that I don’t know what evaluation system is used in universities in our country now, but the best universities should be the ones that publish the best work and that those universities should be the ones students demand the most and the ones that are the most successful in every sense. Here, perhaps, the systems used to determine financing for our universities aren’t related to the science they produce. I’m not an expert on the Spanish university system, but I think that, if scientific output, innovation and technology were linked, which, in the end, provides job opportunities for students attending those universities, there would be a better correlation between university rankings and financing and scientific output, something that happens in the United States but not here.

No matter what’s done, it has to be through decisions based on science and medicine, not on politics

Koldo Echebarria: Throughout your life, you’ve been inspired by science. At some point, that scientific passion emerged. Talk to us a bit about that vocation, how it came about and what made you pursue it.

Maria Blasco: Well, it came about when research came to the classroom, when, one day, a researcher came to class to talk to us about university. I was in high school in Alicante, in San Vicente del Raspeig, and I didn’t know what I wanted to study. Then this researcher came to class, a molecular biologist, working on molecular biology. No one had ever talked to me about that. And I didn’t know what I was going to do in the future in terms of university. Then this researcher came, and I decided to become a molecular biologist. It was at that very moment, when research came to the classroom that, at least in my case, I saw my path.

Koldo Echebarria: And, what sparked that curiosity which is essential for the desire to learn? What was the basis for that? Was there a family connection? Was it school? What developed that appetite of yours to learn from an early age?

Maria Blasco: Well, I think it was already a part of me, that it’s in people one way or another. In my case, I don’t remember a specific moment in which I became interested in learning. I think that it was something I needed from when I was really young. I was a girl who liked learning, inquisitive, I liked experimenting. I liked everything related to what is now my job. It was somehow a part of me. In my family, they always supported and encouraged this, of course, but I think it was already in me.

Koldo Echebarria: As you know, there is a significantly lower percentage of women compared to men in technical and scientific professions, and I think this is an important issue. I think we are wasting a lot of talent by not developing this technical and scientific vocation in women better. What do you think we should do in this respect?

If scientific output, innovation and technology were linked, there would be a better correlation between university rankings and financing and scientific output

Maria Blasco: First, I think we have to nuance this a bit, because, in the biomedicine fields, this includes all the bio fields, biomedicine, biology, biotechnology, medicine, pharmacology, chemistry… I think there are more women than men, and, in some, I even think there is a vast majority of women; 90% of students are women in these areas. Consequently, in these fields, I think there have been as many women as men for decades. However, there continues to be a problem later on, when those leading research are still men. In other words, there is a glass ceiling we have to break. Then there are the fields such as engineering and computer science.

Koldo Echebarria: Like something that happened to you in high school.

Maria Blasco: Of course, women who are engineers. I think we have very good female engineers in our country. Nuria Oliver comes to mind, a data engineer. These women have to serve as models for girls to see that these fields are also interesting and satisfying.

Koldo Echebarria: There are probably social, family prejudices, and in schools themselves, right?

Maria Blasco: It’s probably a cultural issue. In Asian countries, a lot of women opt for these fields. Consequently, we have to be doing something wrong, because, a few decades ago, it was better here; more women opted to study engineering, math or physics.

Koldo Echebarria: To what degree was it a challenge for you to take on management responsibilities? How have you had to adapt? What have you had to learn to take on that role?

Maria Blasco: Well, let’s see, when you lead your own research group, you’re leading the research but you’re also managing. Because research is expensive, you have to find money, funds. Researchers have to compete for financing, funds that are public and private. And this ensures work for your research group. I’ve been doing this for more than 20 years, since I’ve had my own group. Consequently, my role now as scientific director is similar, in other words, I’m not only directing my group; I’m directing 400 researchers. But, in the end, I decide on the centre’s strategic focuses, who are the most promising researchers we have to bring here, what this centre will be like in 10 years. These are the decisions that I have to make. They’re large-scale decisions that, as researchers, we have to make in our own groups. There are differences, obviously, but, basically, they’re similar.

Koldo Echebarria: You’re describing a career that is coherent, in which you began researching, later you led research groups and you moved on to scientific responsibilities, taking advantage of all that.

Maria Blasco: I have always had my research group, I still have it. Later, when I came here to the CNIO, I was the director of a programme which included various groups. I was involved in recruiting groups to create this programme which is now CNIO’s most powerful programme. Later, as of 2011, I was the centre’s vice-director, which also implied significant responsibility in terms of identifying groups that we had to recruit for the CNIO, and then I became a director. I am the scientific director, but there is a managing director who doesn’t depend on me but depends directly on our Board of Trustees and is responsible for everything in terms of contracts, etc., something I don’t have to deal with.

Koldo Echebarria: All the administrative tasks.

Maria Blasco: Yes.

Koldo Echebarria: At any rate, I imagine that, as part of your responsibilities, you have to worry more about resources and you carry out less research directly.

Maria Blasco: Yes, I have less time to dedicate to research. I have to manage not only one group of 15-20 people, but 400 people.

Koldo Echebarria: And how has that been for you? Do you see it as a cost or not?

Maria Blasco: No. I see it as a challenge, as something positive. It’s been a challenge because, in this country, there have been very significant cutbacks in science over the last few years. Research has suffered. Centres like the CNIO have also suffered, less than others, but they have also suffered, and we have had to be fairly creative. Here we receive a lot of private funding, a lot of funds come from agreements with the pharmaceutical industry, and that for me is a source of pride, knowing that this is also related to my job as director.

In Spain, there have been very significant cutbacks in science over the last few years and research has suffered

Koldo Echebarria: Of course. And in your growth to greater management responsibilities, what major hurdles did you come across? What has, to say it one way, challenged you the most in your role?

Maria Blasco: Well, money is often important, but I think that here at the CNIO we’re doing well in terms of financing, having made up for fewer public funds with more private money. And we have done that well, either through agreements with the industry or with foundations and now with a philanthropic initiative called “CNIO Friends”. And, well, that has been one of the things that stands out the most.

Other than funding which we have had to get from private sources, the difficulties are administrative red tape. In this country, science has become a lot less flexible as a result of the austerity measures adopted in 2012. Many of these haven’t been done away with, implying more red tape, making researchers’ work a bit more difficult.

Koldo Echebarria: And, when changing your level of responsibilities, in terms of your research peers because, in the end you’re still colleagues… Has this represented some particular type of challenge for you or not?

Maria Blasco: No. As I said, I was the vice-director before. My colleagues who were directors at other centres were all scientists. That’s why it is so important for directors at these centres to be respected scientists, to have had an international research career and, if possible, having played an important role in innovation. For me at least, I’m on a couple of advisory boards for research centres outside of Spain, and when they have to look for a new profile, a new director, they value that. They value the person’s international recognition, what they have done in science, and it has to have been outstanding. A person whose scientific career has been mediocre can’t lead the centre because it would be terrible for the centre. And then, if possible, they should have clearly wagered on innovation.

In this country, science has become a lot less flexible as a result of the austerity measures adopted in 2012

Koldo Echebarria: And that forces you to, in addition to leading, carry out research at the same time, right?

Maria Blasco: Clearly, without doubt. You can’t pretend to lead a scientific-technological centre, a centre that has to be on the leading edge, make decisions on which research areas to include and which to exclude, if you aren’t truly immersed in the world of science.

Koldo Echebarria: And, bearing in mind that merit-based logic you describe, in addition, with international networks that can make it even more demanding, how does the glass ceiling for female researchers come about?

Maria Blasco: Well, I think that, often times… This isn’t something that’s subject to debate. There’s a lot of research on the glass ceiling. A lot of things have been identified that should be corrected to try to eliminate that ceiling. Many of these have to do with the work-life balance, but not all of them. Facilitating this work-life balance for both men and women so that that glass ceiling disappears. Stereotypes, even in equal conditions, at times, and unintentional biases lead us to tend to value women worse. However, the work-life balance, especially, and we have seen this now with Covid-19, which has implied more telework, etc., negatively affecting women more than men. Why? Due to the work-life balance issue, care-giving.

Koldo Echebarria: I recently read an article that analysed this question, making it clear that scientific output amongst women has been hurt much more than amongst men in the last few months and that this, in effect, is related to the work-life balance. There are both men and women on your team, I imagine.

Maria Blasco: Yes.

You can’t pretend to lead a scientific-technological centre if you aren’t truly immersed in the world of science

Koldo Echebarria: And, are you doing something to try to mitigate these effects?

Maria Blasco: Well, we’re doing things at the centre level. We are about 70% women here; there are a lot of women. What we want is for women to also take the leap and decide to start their own research groups. We have an equal opportunity plan which includes teleworking; we offer flexible schedules.

Koldo Echebarria: Flexibility is very important.

Maria Blasco: We have non-excluding schedules, a full series of measures, in addition to repeating over and over the mantra that there is a problem, that we have to solve it so our youngest female scientists see it, recognise that there is a problem, so that they can later act, let’s say, so that no bias, no stereotype affects them, and that they truly can reach as high as possible.

Koldo Echebarria: One question… do you think the pandemic has caused more stress, more demands, more cases of burnout amongst the people with which you work?

A lot of things have been identified that should be corrected to try to eliminate the glass ceiling in science

Maria Blasco: Well, I think it’s been hard for everyone but not in terms of work, because I think that, at least here at the CNIO, we have done a fairly good job, combining work at the office, with all the possible safety measures, and working remotely. But, I think, in general, it’s affecting us because it’s changed our way of life, don’t you think?

Koldo Echebarria: Yes.

Maria Blasco: And, before, in research, for example, it was a career which implied interacting a lot with other colleagues, going to scientific congresses, travelling a lot. It’s a very international profession, and that is an attractive feature of science. Well, all that has disappeared and turned into a computer screen. And that, obviously, negatively affects you a bit.

Koldo Echebarria: And it’s hard, and it makes work certainly harder.

Maria Blasco: It’s harder or it loses some of its attractiveness. That science which is international which also helps to put some distance between things and always being in an international world that extends beyond borders, beyond the country in which you live.

Koldo Echebarria: Do you feel that that personal contact is important?

Maria Blasco: Without doubt. I think it's important.

Everything that stimulates the mind, relaxes, opens it up, can also be useful later to think about the scientific issue you’re dealing with

Maria Blasco: Yes, without doubt.

Koldo Echebarria: They say that it’s key for innovation, that, without personal contact, innovation will suffer.

Maria Blasco: I think that, at least at first, when you have the initial meetings. Later, it’s not necessary perhaps. We have agreements with pharmaceutical companies in the U.S. and can still follow up on our projects online. But, we have always seen each other at some point, we’ve gotten together, we’ve gone out to eat.

Koldo Echebarria: And there’s that feeling when you meet, that builds trust, which is good to have.

Maria Blasco: Yes.

Koldo Echebarria: And which, obviously, leads to good things.

Maria Blasco: That’s right. 

Koldo Echebarria: The science profession is particularly demanding. It’s hard, from what you were saying, because standards are very high, and that isn’t easy to endure. Where do you find spaces to compensate for all that effort? What helps you, let’s say, reduce stress from time to time?

Maria Blasco: Well, for me personally, my family, my friends. I like playing sports, going for walks. I like travelling, though we can’t do that now. I also like culture, films, the theatre. I still do those things.

Koldo Echebarria: Someone told me that you like Patty Smith, the New York rock star from the 60s, but who, at the same time, has written a marvellous memoir and also worked a lot with young people, stimulating creative thinking in them. What do you like about Patty Smith?

Maria Blasco: Well, though I like her music a lot, I don’t include her amongst my favourite rock stars… I like rock a lot, but she’s not amongst my favourites. I like some other groups more, but I loved reading her work. Her first book fascinated me. Well, it wasn’t the first one, but the book is called “Just kids” or “Éramos unos niños” in Spanish. I thought it was beautiful. Since then, I’ve read everything else she’s written. I love the way she writes and I’ve realised that we like a lot of the same types of things, similar TV series, that we have gone to similar places, we like similar writers. 

Koldo Echebarria: It’s a good credo, a good way of thinking, in which women play an important role. I don’t know if it could be called feminist, but it’s a very interesting belief system that values women in life and in the world.

Maria Blasco: Yes. I think she values creative people.

Koldo Echebarria: Completely.

Maria Blasco: Both men and women.

Koldo Echebarria: Completely, and that value for culture as a way of inspiring and developing.

Maria Blasco: That’s right.

Koldo Echebarria: So what rock bands do you like the most if not Patty Smith?

Maria Blasco:  Well, I like Patty Smith, but I also like PJ  Harvey, a British singer, and, who else? Nirvana... Sparklehorse… Christina Rosenvinge in Spain.

Koldo Echebarria: And, does culture inspire you for research or is it a parallel space, different...?

Maria Blasco: Yes, I think that everything that stimulates the mind, relaxes, opens it up, can also be useful later to think about the scientific issue you’re dealing with, the scientific challenge you face. Everything that helps to open the mind, often just to disconnect, refresh your mind a bit, later also helps you to think better.

Koldo Echebarria: At some point at Esade, we organised a programme with a music school in Boston, Berklee College, on musical creativity and entrepreneurship, on how developing creativity through music implies a very structured type of development. Consequently, it has a method.

Maria Blasco: Yes.

Koldo Echebarria: It’s probably also useful in terms of scientific development, which is also a question of method.

Maria Blasco: Yes, I like music a lot, but I’m not doing manual scientific work now. But I remember when I was doing my postdoc in the United States, I would work with rock  coming out of my headphones while I was doing my experiments. I think that it helps put your mind in a certain state that perhaps… Well, for me, it helps me concentrate even more. Even though it seems counterintuitive, it helps me focus a lot more.

Koldo Echebarria: The same thing happens to me. I agree with that. I think it helps you further explore your own ideas.

Maria Blasco: I’m completely opposed to there being music in a lab, but if someone wants to put on headphones, I think it can be useful. 

Koldo Echebarria: And how do you think that this pandemic is going to affect the cancer research area? Do you think it will energise you, open up new horizons, or enable these philanthropic initiatives to gain strength? How are you analysing this issue here?

Maria Blasco: Well, first, as scientists, the appearance of a new disease for which we have to find a solution is incredibly stimulating. And here, there are a lot of groups… In my group we’re working on things related to Covid-19 because we’re molecular biologists, and, for us, diseases don’t have frontiers, like countries. In the end, everything is molecular biology; they’re the same mechanisms. So, we’re carrying out some lines of work related to different aspects of Covid.

We’re designing diagnostic tests that don’t require a lab to detect the virus’ genome

Koldo Echebarria: Could you give us an example?

Maria Blasco: Yes. I can tell you about some. For example, we’re designing diagnostic tests that don’t require a lab to detect the virus’ genome. We’re developing humanised mice that can be infected with the virus to study the disease. In my group we’re studying one of the ageing mechanisms, the shortening of telomeres. They are a very important structure for life, but we slowly lose them and that leads to ageing.

Koldo Echebarria: Talk to us about your research with telomeres. What can you tell us about them?

Maria Blasco: The word, telomeres, comes from the Greek, meaning “the part at the end”. It comes from the words, télos, which refers to the end, and méros, which refers to a part. Thus, it’s the part at the end of the chromosome, the DNA molecule. Chromosomes are the DNA molecules where information is stored. These telomeres are essential to protect the chromosomes. They’re at the ends, and, as our cells multiply to regenerate our tissues, and this is associated to life, telomeres become increasingly shorter. This shortening is one of the reasons why we age. So, we’re trying to see if short telomeres can be one of the reasons why older people suffer some diseases, why they develop more acute symptoms. We want to find out if this has to do with these telomeres being very important to permit tissues to regenerate. And this virus, which infects the cells of a lot of tissues and kills them, and, in some way, forces tissues to have to regenerate themselves… For a person with shorter telomeres, perhaps that regeneration isn’t possible and that’s why we see the degenerative pathologies that are occurring. 

We’re trying to see if short telomeres can be one of the reasons why older people suffer some diseases, why they develop more acute symptoms

Koldo Echebarria: So, lastly, talk to us about the latest philanthropic initiative your organisation has carried out, something that I think represents a very good model that other institutions could consider.

Maria Blasco: Well, I was in the United States doing my postdoc in a completely private centre called Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, which lived off of donations. It was in Long Island, close to New York City, and it received very significant donations from people, some of them millionaires, but not all of them. There were important families of actors, etc., that donated to Cold Spring Harbor. I realised then that this is very common in the U.S., that is, that people felt proud to donate to Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. It’s not that it was an obligation; it was a need; they had to do it. And I thought: why isn’t this happening in our country? At least, is there a mechanism for this? Maybe no one here will end up donating money, but we don’t know. But, if they want to, they should be able to do so.

So we launched that initiative with that idea, on making it very easy for citizens who want to donate to the CNIO. Much to my surprise, I saw that it wasn’t very different from what happens in the U.S. Many people are thankful for being able to donate to a centre like the CNIO. There are often personal reasons such as a family member dying from cancer. It’s the same in the U.S., and, so, I think that philanthropy can work here in our country as well. The CNIO is a pioneering centre in this sense. It’s an initiative which keeps growing, and I think that what it demonstrates is that there aren’t differences between countries in terms of how important science is for people. Perhaps there’s no tradition of that here, perhaps it’s not easy for citizens to donate or perhaps citizens aren’t aware that they can. But from the moment you make it possible, it happens…

Many people are thankful for being able to donate to a centre like the CNIO

Koldo Echebarria: Exactly, the habit hasn’t been created, the system isn’t there.

Maria Blasco: Yes, that’s right.

Koldo Echebarria: In effect, that’s something we think more or less.

Maria Blasco: In fact, I went to a Forbes International talk in which they were talking about philanthropy, and that’s what they were saying, that there aren’t differences between countries, between the reasons why a person donates. Oftentimes, it’s simply that it doesn’t occur to them, that it’s something they can do, and then, when people see it’s an option, they often donate.

Koldo Echebarria: Well, Maria, thank you so much and congratulations on all your work. I think that, the extremely complex circumstances we’re experiencing today,  makes us truly appreciate everything you do, and gives us an idea of how important it is. At the same time, it allows us to see the multiple connections that we’ve been able to explore here today. Thank you very much.

Maria Blasco: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.

Koldo Echebarria: Will we still see science in the same light once we overcome today’s health crisis? Will we give researchers the funding they need? Will we follow their recommendations when needed? The examples set by the CNIO and Maria Blasco’s leadership offer us reason to hope that this will in fact be the case, all on the road to a world with greater equality and more hope.

All written content is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.