Live from the MCAA Virtual Conference

Valerie Bentivegna
Nov 6, 2020 · 19 min read

Every year, members of the Marie Curie Alumni Association gather to connect, share ideas, and enjoy some food and drink together. This year, things look a bit different. But while we could not gather in person, at the scheduled MCAA Annual Conference back in March, we are still connected. On November 6 and 7, we gather virtually, behind our respective computer screens, at the very first MCAA Virtual Conference to discuss Research and Democracy. And in the process, celebrate Marie Sklodowska-Curie’s Birthday!

You can follow live updates here, and on Twitter following the hashtag #MCAACONF2020.

*** This live blog will be updated during the Conference by the Communications Workgroup —Valerie Bentivegna and Ruben Riosa. Sessions will appear in reverse chronological order***

The last session of the Virtual Conference saw the participation of all the people involved in the conference committee: Alexandros Stylianou (Project Manager for Intrasoft), Andre Henriques (Project Manager for INOVA), Carolinne Silva (External Relationships Manager for INOVA+), Damir Dominko (Research Associate at the Institute of Physics), Evangelos Sitaras (Digital Marketer at INTRASOFT), Iva Skrinjar (Post-Doctoral researcher at the Ruder Boskovic Institute), Ludovine Breger (Project Manager at the University of Paris), Marina Modeer Rantanen (Secretary of the MCAA), Mladen Banovic (Post-Doc at the University of Kaiserslautern), Nancy Goumenou (Social Media Manager at Intrasoft), Rodrigo Volkmann (Project Manager at INOVA+), Rohan Soman (Adkiunt at the Institute of Fluid Flow Machinery of the Polish Academy of Sciences) and Valentina Ferro (Vice-chair of the MCAA), who was also the chair of the session.

Valentina Ferro started the closing remarks by summarising the main topic of the conference: Research and Democracy, and how much they are related one to the other. She then reflected on the highlights of the conference and sessions, and the MCAA’s next steps. Importantly announcing the closure of the MCAA Facebook page; Facebook no longer represents the values of the association, especially when it comes to research and democracy.

She then presented the MCAA Awards 2019 and the winners for each category, allowing them to briefly take the virtual stage.

Winners:
Luisa Corrado — MCAA Career Award 2019
Daniele Catalucci — MCAA Best Innovator Award 2019
Gábor Kismihók — MCAA Outstanding Contributor Award 2019
Praveen Kumar — MCAA Social Impact Award 2019

Description of the different MCAA awards.
Description of the different MCAA awards.

Valentina then presented and acknowledged all the people involved in the organization of this first Virtual Conference — a big thank you to all!

The session then ended with some closing remarks from the chair of the MCAA Mostafa Moonir Shawrav, in which he underlined the strength of the Marie Curie Alumni Association: being united.

Thank you to everyone who attended the virtual conference, and we are already looking forward to the next one!

This session organized by Alexandra Nothnagel (Marie Curie Alumni Association Diversity and Inclusivity Task Force Leader) and chaired by Enka Blanchard (Postdoctoral researcher at Digitrust, Université de Lorraine) involved five other speakers: Gian Maria Greco (Editor in Chief of the Marie Curie Alumni Association Newsletter and of the Irradium magazine) Klaus Hoeckner (Hilfsgemeinschaft der Blinden und Sehschwachen Österreich), Vance Bergeron (CNRS Research director in the physics laboratory at the Ecole Normale Supérieur de Lyon), Alexandra Nothnagel (Marie Curie Alumni Association Diversity and Inclusivity Task Force Leader), Francesco Clemente (Prensilia SRL).

Enka Blanchard started the session by giving an overview of what accessibility is, and how much this can affect the life of a person with a disability even while organizing a trip. She then stated that “Technology aims to improve accessibility, but we need to pay attention in order not to reduce the diversity and put everyone into another box.”

Then, Klaus Hoeckner begins his speech by showing how AI can improve the life of an impaired visual individual by displaying a pair of glasses which are capable to read out loud what they see thanks to a tiny device attached to them; underlining how important can be the development of these new technologies. He then continued his presentation by displaying some of the tools that are now under development.

Slide with some new tools to improve accessibility

Francesco Clemente was the second speaker of the session and he talked about the recent advancement in upper limb prosthetics.

The session moved on with Vance Bergeron who talked about “Functional electrical stimulation for sport and inclusion,” explaining how important sport is to lead to a more inclusive world, in which sport is not seen as a competition, but as a way to create a social environment.

slide showing racing in chairs
slide showing racing in chairs

He invited everyone to join Cyblathon 2020 (https://cybathlon.ethz.ch/de) to learn more about the topic and see many technologies in action!

The session ended with a general discussion on how AI can improve the detection of disability (such as dyslexia), but also the future of the European Funding opportunities, and concluding with some questions from the audience.

Note: the EU provides additional funding opportunities for fellows with a disability; more info here: https://ec.europa.eu/research/mariecurieactions/news/new-msca-allowance-support-fellows-disability_en

Dr. Lidia Natalia Trusilewicz from the Responsible Research Environments Taskforce of the MCAA Policy Working Group leads a panel on structural violence and harassment in the scientific environment.

The first panelist, Dr. Karen Stroobants (Board member of the MCAA and co-funder of MetisTalk) tells us how we can work towards zero-tolerance for bullying and harassment in the research environment. Bullying and harassment are rampant in research culture. “We reward people for excellent research despite their behaviors and how they achieved that research.” Luckily, there are now a lot of initiatives moving towards a fix, by redefining “success” and what we value in academia.

Then, Dr. Darragh McCashin (taskforce leader for Researcher Mental Health within the MCAA Policy Working Group, and co-founder of Referent) describes the work he and his taskforce has with the Referent pilot project. Referent aims to provide a mentoring framework within the MCAA environment, by clearly defining mentorship and connecting mentors to mentees. The pilot project connected 12 pairs of mentor-mentees and showed high satisfaction, and the next steps involve expanding the project to more participants and exploring new collaborations.

Jeanne Ponte (Founder of MeTooEP — Mee To European Parliament) comments on the links between research and political culture. Both are very competitive, have long hours, and clear power imbalances. Both show instances of sexual violence being a non-secret, and new people hear things like “it’s just different culture” and “it’s just flirting.” With #MeTooEP, she created a network of solidarity between victims of such behavior, a platform for stories to be shared to show how common sexual harassment is, and providing support systems. Through mandatory training, ensuring confidentiality of complaints and accountability for politicians who overstep the line, the culture within the European Parliament can be changed for the better.

Final panelist Vincent-Immanuel Herr is a Catalyst for HeForShe Germany, which aims to activate more men for the quest for gender equality. He starts with some personal experiences in his family, he saw a model of how men can contribute to not just the problem, but also the solution. From his experiences talking to men in the workplace as a Catalyst, he has noticed that the majority of men don’t actively contribute to structural violence, but by being silent they indirectly contribute. This is a problem everyone should get involved in, regardless of gender.

Screenshot of the 5 panelists in the session
Screenshot of the 5 panelists in the session

In the discussion, the panelists talked about how while we are perhaps “not there yet,” it is important that this discussion is happening. The data clearly shows there is a problem, and now is the time for concrete actions. People in power need to have to courage to speak up against bad behaviors and inappropriate jokes, we need to have zero tolerance and reevaluate what consists of merit.

“When we talk about excellence, we should not just talk about the excellence of research but also on how that excellence is achieved.” — Karen Stroobants

Panelists closed by answering what makes them proud about doing this work. Karen shared that future leaders are very engaged in learning more, which is hopeful! Darragh says that the number of different voices that are fighting the good fight is a sign that progress is happening. Jeanne is proud of bringing kindness and solidarity into the political world. And finally, Vincent appreciates all the wonderful people he has met while researching a book on improving culture, who are doing good work — not for gain but because they believe in it.

This session, chaired by Valentina Ferro (Vice-chair of the MCAA) involved three other panelists: Giuseppe Porcaro (Head of Outreach and Governance), Nahema Marchal (a Doctoral candidate at Oxford Internet Institute researching the relationship between social media, political communication and polarization), Virginia Fiume (coordinator of the European Initiatives promoted by Science for Democracy and of the pan-European citizen's movement Eumans).

Screenshot of the zoom panel: four speakers.
Virginia Fiume, Nahema Marchal, Valentina Ferro and Giuseppe Porcaro

Valentina started the session by giving an overview on the power of Social media, and how much they can affect our lives:

In today’s session, the goal is to cover the good, the bad, and the evil of Social Media. The first question that Valentina raises was for Nehama and it was about the propaganda that can be made through social media, and its power.
Nehama underlined that: “Propaganda has been around since Alexander the Great, it is always been with us,” and nowadays it is simply more powerful due to the capacity of Social media to share a message to a very large audience, in a very simple and cheap way.
“Social media like Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, are very powerful media, they allow individuals to connect to a large number of people quickly and in a cheap (or free) way. Moreover, for example on YouTube and Facebook you can also have the power to create a sense of community, creating networks which would permit you to send messages even faster.”

Valentina then asked if “a ‘swipe-to-vote’ mobile app could replace the entire election process. At this question, Giuseppe underlined the relationship between technology and democracy and the risk of altering a democratic process while using too much technology. We have to focus on two major aspects:

  1. Non Technological à going in the direction of an oversimplification of the system, in terms of applying things that normally people are used to using (swiping left or right) for an election; can be problematic.
  2. Technological à “techno-utopia” stream of thinking in which there is the idea that tech can fix the gap between government and the population; while applying computational streaming to the model, we tend to forget what democracy is: it is not a result of an election, democracy is a general participation.

Virginia then added the concept of Participatory democracy, which should ensure that citizens are afforded an opportunity to participate or otherwise be involved in decision making on matters that affect their lives; and in this matter, Social media can definitely help in involving more people in the discussion. She concluded her talk by adding that “Democracy is much more than an election; as a whole, it is the life of being a citizen. […] Social media are a set of tools that should be used, but they should not be used alone, they must follow the rule of law.”

The session ended with a general discussion around the dangers of misleading content on social media and how this can make citizens change their votes, but also how Social media are affecting the freedom of speech.

MCAA Chair Dr. Mostafa Moonir Shawrav leads the discussion on the future of Horizon Europe. The MCAA is pushing to reverse the proposed budget cut in Research & Innovation in the Horizon Europe framework program (you can read more here: https://www.mariecuriealumni.eu/news/press-conference-impact-covid-19-and-budget-cuts-next-generation-eu-researchers).

Dr. Maria de Graça Carvalho, European Parliament member; Dr. Jean-Pierre Bourguignon, President as interim of the European Research Council; and Dr. Lidia Borell-Damián, Secretary General of Science Europe, show different perspectives and considerations that play into these discussions.

As researchers, we can help inform citizens and politicians about the importance of science!

Who needs a conference hall when you have a virtual lobby?

The second of the Virtual conference began with a networking event in which all the participants could talk, discuss and exchange ideas just like as if they were in the same room!

Screen shot of the lobby showing various people watching a video.
When we can’t connect face to face, we connect virtually!

We ended the day with a Science Comedy show! Hosted by the funnily amazing Anastasia Papangelou, featuring the brave and hilarious first-time comedy performers Nafsika Stavridou, Celia Arroyo Lopez, and Ashish Avasthi, musical interludes by Valerie Bentivegna, and headlining the amazingly funny science writer and comedian Kasha Patel, we ended the evening with laughter!

The show was not just an opportunity for us to kick back and relax, but also one to raise some funds for the Marie Curie Alumni Association and the European Network Against Racism. All donations to the MCAA from now until Monday, will be split evenly between the two organizations! You can still donate here: https://www.mariecuriealumni.eu/donations

And with that, day one is a wrap! See you tomorrow!

Unfortunately, our live blog team could not attend this session — an update will appear once we watch the replay! If you would like to contribute a paragraph here please contact blog@mariecuriealumni.eu. Thank you for your understanding!

Lightening things up a bit, this “Make ’em Laugh” session is all about comedy, and the presenter is Valerie Bentivegna, the Chair of the Communication Workgroup of the MCAA.

Valerie started the session with a comedy video about COVID-19 and scientists by Raven Baxter and asked a simple question: “Why are we here in this workshop?” There are two (possible) reasons to look into comedy and science:

  1. Science comedy as a unique way to do science communication
  2. Using some comedy in scientific presentations

There are several perks to science comedy: it can show that science is not boring, make scientists appear more relatable and memorable, and grab the audience’s attention when talking about a scientific topic.

If science comedy sparks your interest, the next question could be: How do I come up with new materials? Draw from your own experience, if you’re open to experiencing new things, science is a huge inspiration for your work — e.g. for sure, you’ll have stories from your lab experiments.

Valerie suggested some exercises to help you come up with new material, e.g. writing down five ways to [insert prompt here]. Prompts could be: “convince your supervisor your data is not as awful as it looks,” “completely ruin a zoom lab meeting,” or “make an excuse for being late to the office.”

Once you know what to write a comedy set about, the next step is making it funny. There are some common tools used in comedy: EXAGGERATION, REPETITION, ELEMENTS OF SURPRISE, THE RULE OF THREE (three things and the third one is the most exaggerated or a term which is completely unrelated to the first two one), SARCASM, EMBRACE THE PAUSE, SCIENCE PUNS. However, the most important rule is: BREAK THE RULES and practice, practice, and practice!

After audience members sharing their best science jokes and puns, the session ended with some final thoughts:

Screen shot of the presentation with the text: if you remember one thing, remember this: Be likable, be relatable, be you!
Screen shot of the presentation with the text: if you remember one thing, remember this: Be likable, be relatable, be you!

Renaud Jolivet facilitates a panel discussion on Artificial Intelligence, Neuroscience, and Policy.

Kicking it off with Dr. Nadia Metoui, who shows us the scary world of Deep Fakes, where you can make fake videos or audio of people saying things they haven’t! It might seem fun to have Elon Musk (seemingly) crash your zoom call, but how would you feel about someone calling up your family using your voice? This technology is becoming more and more accessible and mainstream, creating dangers in terms of social engineering, identity theft, and enabling marginalization and extremism. With the development of this technology, comes also the technology to prevent, detect, and track Deep Fakes. And finally, it’s not all bad! The technology can be useful to make the entertainment industry more accessible and the AI tools are useful for medical imaging data amongst other things!

Dr. Ricardo Chavarriaga dives into the world of brain-computer interfaces and the policy considerations involved. There’s the narrative of hope, improving our life and our health, while there is also something scary about these emerging technologies. We can also consider the power aspect, with nations with better technology playing larger roles in the global economy. While making policies, is important to not focus too much on scenarios that are far in the future and possibly will not be achieved. It’s more important to focus on the probable and plausible scenarios to shape novel, proactive, and evidence-based policies.

Finally, Dr. Michele Giugliano talks about the state of the art and future of understanding the brain. We have a lot to learn about not only reading the brain, but also “writing,” manipulating single neurons. We can draw from novel materials, such as nanomaterials, understanding the processes in the brain better, and moving to different techniques for manipulation (light, magnetic particles, heat, or ultrasound, instead of electric signals) to move towards the future of neuronal prosthetics that now seem to be just in the realm of Science Fiction.

At the end of the day, we learned that all the panelists were Deep Fakes! (JK)

In this parallel session, we discuss the challenges from an Early Career Researcher’s perspective. The session was moderated by Maja Mise (Marie Curie Alumni Association Open Science Task Force Leader) and see the presence of other three panelists: Alexandar Hasgall (Head of the EUA Council for Doctoral Education), Giulia Malaguarnera (General Board Member and Former Social Media Coordinator of Eurodoc), and Toma Susi (Assistant Professor at the University of Vienna and formerly responsible for open science policy as the Vice-chair of the Young Academy of Europe).

Maja started the session: “Open science was born to give free access to scientific articles, in order to improve the communication between scientists and to give free access also to the public.” This session analyzed the problems of Open science have been analyzed, and how they can be improved, starting with a quick comment from all the panelists on what is Open science and where it is heading.

  • Giulia: “Open science should be a common practice. Should not be used only as an emergency situation.”
  • Toma: “Back in 2011, Open science didn’t really break through. In the last couple of years, especially from a political decision of 2016, open science became more of a reality, because there was the need of giving access to science to everyone. […] Open research seems where the world is going, and in future it will be necessary to try to also make the data and the lab book available to everyone.”
  • “It’s silly to look at the name of the journal and evaluate researchers based on this, but we’re still doing it.”
  • Alexander: “In the past, we were thinking to create the Open science system, now we are in a situation in which we are discussing which is the best way to make it. It is already a reality. […] Research is knowledge, it must be interdisciplinary and there must be connection between the researchers.”

The session then underlined the fact that there is still the need in most cases to publish in high ranked journal to pursue an academic career. Open science at the moment sometimes is not enough. However, publishing in Open access journal could significantly increase the number of people reading a scientific publication and the number of citations.

Open science it’s a way to make research better and more accessible to everyone.

The discussion then turned to how universities can support researchers to practice Open Science in terms of infrastructures and training?

  1. Creation of better data system management to collect all the information from a research project;
  2. Need to look to what are the right skills that an Early Stage Researchers should learn to use these data;
  3. Develop infrastructures which could connect ESRs and workers with different backgrounds.

The session ended with a final comment on Open Research Europe, a publishing platform commissioned and paid by the European Commission, which will enable researchers to have full access to peer-reviewed publishing service for both Horizon 2020 and Horizon Europe beneficiaries at no cost to them, during and after the end of their grants. The platform aims to have a rapid publication system and publication outputs that would support research integrity, reproducibility, and transparency and enable open science practices

Prof. Danial Ziblatt (Eaton Professor of the Science of Government at Harvard University, resident faculty associate of the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies and Harvard’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, and author of ‘How democracies die’) might be the best keynote speaker we could have at this moment in time.

From lessons from the past of democracies collapsing in Europe and South America, we can learn about what is currently happening all over the world.

“Democracy is on the ballot”

Prof. Ziblatt began his talk with “Democracy is on the ballot.” Using the current example of what is happening in the United States, he outlines how we got to this point. “What’s gone wrong? We live in an age of disruption: economy, technology, and politics. In the 20th century, democracies died at the hands of guns. Today, most democracies die in subtle ways, not by the hands of generals, but of presidents.”

According to his book, there are 4 types of behaviors a politician can exert that should rais the alarm:

  1. Someone who refuse to accept the rules of democracy;
  2. Someone who tolerates violence;
  3. Someone who denies the legitimacy of political opponents;
  4. Willingness to curtain civil liberties (including media)

Democracies are not only dependant on the constitution, more is needed — unwritten democratic norms: mutual tolerance and institutional forbearance. The first one means “seeing opponents as people, as citizens with rights the same as your own,” and he underlined that when you start viewing your political opponents as traitors, as enemies, then, mutual tolerance has been broken down. The latter means “that elected officials cannot exercise legal action that intentionally privileges one group of individuals at the expense of another,” and he explained how threatening with government shutdowns and other forms of foreign policy have become standards tools in politics, even though they can have a terrible effect on the country, its economy, and its democracy.

The keynote wrapped up with some notes on polarization: “Polarization kills democracy, it also kills the pursuit of truth.” Scientists and researchers pursue the truth, and they must be the defenders of the pursuit of facts. Politicians are not scientists, so when it comes to science, researchers must have the last word, and they must be able to go against a politician thoughts:

“Scientists and researchers much be the defenders of facts. When politicians make up facts, we need to react!”

Prof. Ziblatt concludes the Q&A with some reassuring words: the systems are still in place, it is not too late.

Next to a whole plethora of sessions, the virtual conference also includes an Expo Fair. In the virtual, all the participants have the possibility to network and to get in touch with many different partners and sponsors, including: BW career, Euraxess, Eduverse, My Science Superhero, Research in Germany, Marie Sklodowska-Curie actions, and the Republic of Croatia’s Ministry of Science and Education.
All these partners are available to have a chat and a discussion!

Picture of the virtual lobby, showing a person behind a welcome desk, and a screen with the event sponsors
Who needs a conference hall when you have a virtual lobby?

The Virtual Conference kicks off with MCAA Chair Mostafa Moonir Shawrav introducing the topic of the Conference: Research on Democracy. From the word cloud, created by conference attendees, it is already clear that research and democracy go hand in hand.

Word cloud including: freedom, diversity, respect, inclusion, equality, fairness.
Word Cloud answering the question “What does democracy mean for you?”

Themis Christophidou, Director-General for Education, Youth, Sport and Culture of the European Commission since March 2018, shares what she believes to be the three fundamental elements of Research and Democracy: Freedom, Openness, and Responsibility.
Not only is freedom in research important in terms of fair and open peer review, for which free discussion is crucial, but the European Commission believes that freedom of research is a basic right. One way the MCAA is working towards ensuring this is by supporting researchers at risk, providing refugee resources with networking opportunities and reintegration resources.
By opening up science to citizens, policymakers, to civil society, we not only increase trust in science and make a greater societal impact, but we can involve society directly in research through participatory actions and science communication efforts.
Finally, we have the common responsibility to uphold democracy not only as citizens but also as professionals. We can rely on our science and expertise to be an active and involved voice in civil life, for example through fact-checking and myth debunking.

During the opening remarks, we also hear from Claire Morel, Head of the unit in charge of the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions for the mobility and training or researchers and the development of excellent doctoral programmes, at the European Commission. She presented two very important initiatives that are planned within the European Commission:
Researchers at school —by promoting science at a young age, we can encourage students from primary and secondary school to be directly connected to important issues in today’s society through the lens of science, including climate change, clean oceans, health, and food safety.
Innovation Missions — Each mission is a mandate to solve a pressing challenge in society within a certain timeframe and budget and every researcher is encouraged to take part.
She concluded her talk reminding everyone to take part in the upcoming Researcher’s Night, which will take place on the 27th of November and is a Europe-wide public event that brings researchers closer to the general public.

To close off the opening session, we heard from MCAA Vice-Chair Valentina Ferro, who thanked all the people involved in preparing for this Virtual Conference.
She underlined the importance of Research and Diversity and how much the research world is important to solve problems. Researchers are fundamental to democracy: they try to make sense of the world and make it a better place, and that cannot be separate from politics.
Another important aspect mentioned is science communication: “Communicating our results is fundamental. Our research can affect policy and other people’s lives.”

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