Interview with Miguel Angel Pericàs. Director of ICIQ

Léelo en español

“We managed to position ourselves very high at a global level. This is not about doing things well for a given period of time; things must always be done well, and rigour and quality must be maintained in the future”

“Governments should be warned that research is not an “extra” that only rich societies can afford. It is just the other way round: some societies are rich because they do research and innovation and allocate resources to that.”

“In spite of the crisis and all the economic difficulties since 2008, we have been able to generate resources

Miguel Ángel Pericàs was born in Palma in 1951. He studied Chemical Engineering at the IQS, and Chemistry in the University of Barcelona (UB). He obtained his Ph.D. in UB in 1979. After a post-doctoral stage in CSIC, lead by Prof. Francisco Camps, he joined the UB in 1980 as an Assistant Professor. Since 1991, he has been Professor of Organic Chemistry. 

Since 2000, he has been the leader of the Institute of Chemical Research of Catalonia (ICIQ; Institut Català d’Investigació Química). In 2004 he also became a Principal Investigator of one of the Institute Research groups. In the last few years he has been working on chemical production sustainability, and he has become a pioneer in the development of continuous catalytic processes for the production of chyral compounds. 

Beside his academic pathway, Miquel Àngel Pericàs has been an entrepreneur: he was a co-founder of Enantia, S.L. He published about 250 scientific research papers and co-authored 24 patents. In the year 2000 he was awarded the Distinció de la Generalitat de Catalunya per a la Promoció de la Investigació Universitària (“Generalitat de Catalunya Distinction for the Promotion of University Research”); in 2001 he was given the Premio Janssen-Cylag a la Investigación en Química Orgánica (“Janssen-Cylag award for Research in Organic Chemistry”) awarded by the Real Sociedad Española de Química (“Spanish Royal Society of Chemistry”) and in 2005 he was awarded the Medalla Narcís Monturiol al Mérito Científico y Tecnológico de la Generalitat (“Narcís Monturiol Medal to Scientific and Technological Merit of the Generalitat”).


SQ.- What is the ICIQ and what is its mission?

MAP.- The ICIQ is a research center that was created back in the year 2000; research activities started in 2004. It was created with the goal to become a benchmark center in chemistry, focused on performing fundamental research and making chemistry grow at the frontiers of top knowledge. Besides, such knowledge would be used to improve the competitiveness of the industrial chemistry sector.


SQ.- ¿How did the idea to create the institute arise?
MAP.- At the end of the 1990s, the Generalitat (autonomous goverment in Catalonia) wanted to contribute to the creation of a qualitative difference in the research being done in Catalonia back in those days. Thus, under the leadership of Andreu Mas-Colell, who was the Conseller a Conseller plays the role of a minister in the autonomous government in Catalonia for Universities, Research and Information Society back then, a Research Center network was started to develop. The aim of the network was to provide top-quality research centers. I was invited to start this Institute, which was expected to become a benchmark center, with a critical mass goal of 300 people (the number of people currently working here now) and to be installed in Tarragona, for the obvious reason that it would be close to the most important chemical area in Southern Europe.


SQ.- What role does the ICIQ play in the Tarragona area?
MAP.- When the ICIQ was founded, we knew for certain that the Institute could contribute to the development and sustainability of the chemical industry in Tarragona. I believe that, along with the URV, we have created a very powerful Chemistry core, and we have established strong relationships with the chemical industry. Nevertheless, it should be taken into account that the industry located in Tarragona is mostly production-focused; we collaborate with the headquarters of these companies, with their central research units. We would like the well-known research core in Tarragona to be an incentive for these companies when thinking about creating important research units in Tarragona. In fact, the ICIQ in the aforementioned collaboration model that partners a business company with a research institution currently hosts two combined research units that work under an open innovation basis. This is an example of how performing top-class research attracts the industry towards our centre in order to be able to obtain the corresponding benefits.


SQ.- ¿Do you think that the creation of the ChemMed Cluster may be useful for a closer approach-collaboration with the industry?
MAP.- It will be helpful for both sides: we will help increase the level of research currently being done by the industry located in Tarragona; besides, we will be able to contribute to a model shift, from a production-based model to a model more strongly based in knowledge generation and the creation of added value.


SQ.- Bearing in mind that there are many different research lines at your institute, could you tell us something about any of the cutting-edge, most innovative ones currently being developed?
MAP.- Our research is focused on fundamental chemistry. Apart from research lines focusing on achieving better use of natural resources, some of our research lines are targeted at energy sustainability (alternative energy sources) and at essential subjects such as fighting global warming by means of CO2 reuse as a raw material or obtaining methanol from sources other than crude oil. This is a “trendy” subject, as it is one of the basic pillars of H2020. We have been working on that for a long time. For example, three of our groups are working in several areas regarding CO2 use, and we are very well positioned from a global point of view.

SQ.- What is the current position of ICIQ, both from a national and from a global point of view?
MAP.- Our institution is still young and it is difficult to establish comparisons to different, longer-lived institutions. But I believe our first ten years have been extremely positive as a consequence of the approaches we have chosen and our good choices in terms of research staff and research subjects. Because of that, I do not consider it boastful to say that we managed to position ourselves very high from a global point of view. A short time ago, a ranking was published by the Max Planck Association in Germany, Mapping Scientific Excellence , which covers 17 areas and is mainly focused on two parameters: average publication quality and citations of the research published by the institution. According to the aforementioned ranking, we obtained the first place worldwide in one of the criteria, and the second place in the other.
This makes us extremely proud, and now the most important thing is to be able to maintain the level we achieved. This is not about doing things well for a given period of time; things must always be done well, and rigour and quality must be maintained in the future. This is our main goal: to strengthen our position and make sure the Institute is sustainable from a financial point of view.

SQ.- Researchers from all over the world work and collaborate in your center. How could you achieve, in just ten years, the high international regard you achieved?
MAP. – When an institution runs well and has achieved a certain regard, it attracts researchers from many different countries. Around 225-230 researchers are currently working at ICIQ: group leaders, research assistants and about 180 Ph.D. students and post-docs (they are equally distributed, there are about 90 of them in each category).
6 out of the 19 group leaders in the institute come from abroad. Having international researchers, as well as the high regard of the institution and the people in it, attract other students. In short, this is a matter of setting great expectations, doing things well, achieving and committing to a good reputation and, of course, having the required resources available to achieve all the aforementioned. In the last few years, we fought to create resources in tough times, as funding obtained had strongly decreased. We now hope the situation may improve, as we were acknowledged as a Centro de Excelencia Severo Ochoa (Severo Ochoa Centre of Excellence) by the MINECO (Ministerio de Economía y Competitividad, Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness). This will be a very important, additional funding source for us.


SQ.- What does such an acknowledgement imply?
In a way, being awarded an “Excellence” acknowledgement causes deep satisfaction, even more so when excellence was one of the goals of the Institution from the very moment it was created. This is a very important acknowledgement from a moral point of view.
Besides, that will imply 1M€ funding a year for four years, as well as preferential access to certain grant programmes and post-doctoral contracts. If things are done well, it is possible to continue to obtain the excellence award as the years go by…Its impact on the Institute activity will be remarkable.


SQ.- In this context, could you give us an overall assessment of the decade?

MAP.- I am the Director-Founder of the Institute, and I am really proud of what we achieved. I have been taking care of the project for 14 years, and one period came directly after another, no breaks: hiring the first researchers from the Scientific Board, building and running the first building in 2004; in 2007 the second stage was started, and it worked from 2009 onwards.
In spite of the crisis and all the economic difficulties since 2008, we were able to generate resources that came from the European Research Council (ERC), by means of research programmes of excellence, as well as funding from the industry obtained from mixed units. All the aforementioned made it possible for us to be where we are now, even in such a tough scenario, by means of a great amount of competitive effort. And we are in full swing. From a scientific point of view, I truly believe we have achieved an extremely successful route. Apart from the Max Planck ranking I introduced before, we hold a very good position in the SIR (Scimago Institutions Ranking) . Our ability to attract ERC resources meant that, right now, projects belonging to two ERC Advanced Grants (the most important grants by ERC) are currently being developed at the Institute, along with five ERC Starting Grants. This means that seven of our current projects, out of a total of 19, are funded by the EU. This is an extremely high ratio.
I would also like to mention that we are strongly supported by the ICREA institution (Institució Catalana de Recerca i Estudis Avançats) : 8 out of our 19 group leaders are ICREA Research Professors.


SQ.- Our country has great scientific and human potential. What do you think is the level of our research in a global competitive framework?
MAP.- I believe that, some time ago, Spanish Universities curricula trained high-level Chemistry graduates, who became highly-competitive, fully-skilled professionals by complementing their training with pre-doctoral and post-doctoral grants, both in Spain and abroad. For a long time, Spanish students were highly regarded in top-class universities. They all had the opportunity to move back to Spain and develop their projects and their research.
Thus, when proper means were available, this generation of researchers made it clear enough that they are second to no other researchers in any other country in the world.
Right now, the situation is very serious and delicate. Most of the aforementioned has been greatly reduced, funding has steadily decreased… it is difficult to foresee how things will eventually evolve, but there is a great, real risk of destroying something that was built all along the last 20 years.
Human potential is available. Nevertheless, on the one hand, University curricula have changed a lot; on the other hand, the grant system has been modified and right now centers such as CSIC or Universities have blocked their workforce, and these are high-risk factors. In a science and technology system, it is essential for the system to continue to be dynamic at all times. No interruption lasting 4 or 5 years may take place without the system being severely affected.
This is just a matter of priorities.


SQ. To finish with, what is your opinion about the future of research in Spain?
MAP.- I would like to add that governments should be warned that research is not an “extra” that only rich societies can afford. It is just the other way round: some societies are rich because they do research and innovation and allocate resources to that. All great advances in innovation stem from research started with public funding; in most cases, private capital comes into play later, when research in a given field has already shown promising results.


Interview with Miguel Angel Pericàs. Director of ICIQ