Interview with Rector Jaume Casals
In 2021, Universitat Pompeu Fabra joined The Guild as its twenty-first member. The Guild interviewed Rector Casals about the university, its vision for the future, and its passion for strengthening the pursuit of knowledge.
The Guild: The University of Pompeu Fabra is one of the foremost universities of the Iberian Peninsula, but it has managed to do this within only three decades. What do you consider to be the receipe for the success of Pompeu Fabra?
Jaume Casals: From the beginning, we have been able to hire good faculty and staff from around the world. Our people have shared a strong sense of involvement in the selection of top-quality staff, and so the big secret to our success is our people.
In addition, we have, from the beginning, had a very strong sense of the interconnectedness of teaching and research: these are neither running alongside each other, nor are they the same, but they flourish through their rich interactions.
The Guild: You are already in the vibrant city of Barcelona, you have a large international community, you’re engaged in the EUTOPIA university alliance, so you could argue that your ambition to be truly international has already been achieved. What does your membership of The Guild bring to your international ambitions?
Jaume Casals: Barcelona is a very international city, an important city in Europe. We need to be seen as a community committed to knowledge, and not just to tourism and fairs. We need to become stronger in creating knowledge and deepening our understanding of knowledge.
Membership of The Guild adds to our position in Barcelona, in Spain, a network of some of the most distinguished universities in Europe. It gives us a new network of like-minded colleagues who are passionate about top-quality research and education, with whom we look forward to engaging with in new ways.
The Guild: One of many marks of distinction is that Pompeu Fabra University has been the most successful university in Spain at obtaining ERC grants since 2014. How has the frontier research that the ERC has funded helped you to address societal challenges?
Jaume Casals: The ERC has been very important to us as a relatively small university to attract – and retain – some of the best researchers. It has enabled us to compete with the World’s best universities in supporting outstanding research, giving us facilities and opportunities that we could never have obtained through national funding alone. When the ERC was created it was a happy moment for us because our researchers were able to turn to it for support – and we hope that supporting our researchers was a happy moment for the ERC too!
The Guild: We are at the moment at a very distinctive point in Europe, when the Next Generation EU recovery package has been created to mitigate the consequences of the pandemic. As a result of this, Spain will double its investments in research and innovation for the next two years. Is this necessary from your perspective?
Jaume Casals: It is really important to invest more in science. The government has to use this money for projects that are sufficiently developed so that they can produce results in the next few years. We have a very strong project for the city of Barcelona and for the science in Barcelona to unify our campus of social sciences, our teaching hospital (Hospital del Mar) and the biomedical research park to develop a strong research focus around planetary well-being, to bring together precision medicine, technology, and social sciences. We have had this vision anyway and we will be turning it into reality, but extra funds would enable us to provide additional investment in areas of strength, including biomedical research, data sciences, and artificial intelligence. We will continue to lobby hard for this project, as it is important that Next Generation EU funds are invested where they make a real difference for society, and for the future.
The Guild: Innovation is also a core aspect of Pompeu Fabra’s identity, not only through your innovative teaching models, but also through projects like UPF Ventures: can you tell us a bit more about these initiatives, and how they are related to your research excellence?
Jaume Casals: In Catalonia and in Spain more widely we do not have a lot of big industry that spends a lot of money in research, but we have in fact a lot of medium and small companies, that are not enough accustomed to collaborating with basic researchers to try to improve their results. We are trying to find ways in which companies can be part of the development process of a research project from the beginning, to improve collaboration with industrial and social actors. At the moment we do not have complete freedom, and we are working to affect a change in the law so that we can be more free in the ways in which we interact with businesses.
We are also working with companies that can benefit from our commitment, through our research and teaching, to planetary well-being, where we can provide unique added value from the quality and the distinctive approaches of our research.
The Guild: As a leading university in Spain and beyond, how do you prepare your students for the future in a world that is changing really very quickly?
Jaume Casals: It is important to us that from the first moment, the impulse of research has to be inside our teaching. It is also important to us that culture is at the heart of the university. When you have an engineer, who is a good reader of the best books of the history of humanity, you have not only a better person but a better engineer. Finally, we are strengthening transversal skills and make our concern for planetary well-being the leitmotiv of all departments in their teaching. The question of how sustainable development can be integrated into the curriculum is a core concern for the European Education Area, but we have been working on this for the last 10-15 years.
The Guild: What can Pompeu Fabra University bring to The Guild network?
Jaume Casals: I am a convinced European, and my colleagues in the university leadership but also throughout the university are persons really committed to the idea of strengthening Europe and increasing its benefits for all of us. To my mind, The Guild is one of the best organisations to bring together universities with this ambition and to strengthen Europe and our values through our research and teaching.
As a Philosopher, I would say that education and research is something that is at every moment concerned with the singularity of what are you doing in the universal aspiration of the truth. As we find ways to endow the singularity, the locality, the very particular and precise things, with universality, then we can also see how Pompeu Fabra can add another dimension to The Guild’s network. We enrich The Guild’s diversity as we bring our endeavours together from all parts of Europe to develop a stronger voice in the pursuit of universal knowledge.