Interview with António Bento Gonçalves: “I believe that when science is produced, in any area of ​​knowledge, we are contributing to society”

António Bento Gonçalves has been a professor at the University of Minho since 1998, an institution where he also received a doctorate in Geography of forest fires. His interests cover several aspects of this scientific area, such as natural risks and civil protection or the causes and consequences of forest fires.

In an interview, António Bento Gonçalves spoke of coming to CECS, of the election for the position of president of the Portuguese Association of Geographers and of the scientific work that he has been developing throughout his academic career.


How were the first steps in academic life?

In the last year of the Degree in Geography, at FLUC, I received an invitation to join a multidisciplinary research team in the field of forest fires, led by Professors Luciano Lourenço and Xavier Viegas. Thus, the taste for research in the area of ​​Geography of Forest Fires began in 1989 and continues today.

Later, I did a master’s degree in Physical Geography, still at FLUC, and integrated, at the University of Aveiro, a European project, also in the area of ​​forest fires, focused on its effects on the soil. This project involved long internships at the University of Swansea and some stays at the Universities of Madrid and Plymouth, allowing me to further specialize in the subject previously mentioned.

Back at the University of Coimbra, I collaborated in several projects on risk of forest fires, forest education, …, in the Nucleus for Scientific Investigation of Forest Fires.

At the University of Minho, where I have been a professor since 1998, I did my Ph.D. in Physical Geography and Environmental Studies, also in the area of ​​Geography of forest fires and, I continued my research in the various aspects of this scientific area, that is, the natural risks and civil protection, the environmental, economic and social causes and consequences of forest fires.


António Bento Gonçalves is the director of the degree in Civil Protection and Territory Management at UM. How was the process of creating this course?

The course arose from the need felt by Portuguese society to offer higher education in the area of ​​Civil Protection. Thus, given the existing skills in the Department of Geography, where several teachers/researchers are dedicated to the study of natural risks and spatial planning, the course was structured and submitted to higher approval, in a partnership between the Institute of Social Sciences (ICS) and the School of Engineering, with strong support and encouragement from the ICS presidency.

After being approved by A3ES, following the dramatic fires of 2017, it was finally authorized to start, in the academic year 2018-2019.


You were recently elected president of the Portuguese Association of Geographers and had been vice president of RISCOS (Portuguese Association of Risks, Prevention, and Security). How does participation in these associations relate to your work?

The three terms as Vice-President of RISCOS are directly related to my scientific work in the area of ​​natural hazards, and in particular, that of forest fires. In fact, following the collaboration on several scientific projects and the publication, in co-authorship with colleagues from FLUC, of ​​several articles, I received the invitation to join the RISCOS Board, having fulfilled three mandates.

The election for the Presidency of the Portuguese Association of Geographers followed the two terms in which I was a member of the Board of APG (2016-2018 and 2018-2020), chaired by Prof. José Alberto Rio Fernandes (FLUP), at the end of which, and following a set of initiatives that I had been implementing, I was asked by the members of the former leadership to head a candidacy, thus continuing the work that came perform, now in the leadership of the Association.


Bento Gonçalves recently joined the team of the Communication and Society Research Centre (CECS). What is your involvement with scientific projects and what are the main objectives of each one?

I have already been involved and/or coordinating several projects (FP7, Interreg, FCT, …), at the moment I am involved in two H2020 applications and three FCT and I coordinate, at the University of Minho, as two partner projects, at FCT.

The first results from a partnership with the University of Évora and the second with NIPE (School of Economics and Management at UMinho) and the CCG (UMinho).

The ongoing projects aim, first, to know in more detail the effects of fires on the chemical and physical properties of soils, while the second has the central objective of knowing the economic and ecosystem costs of forest fires.

Indeed, forest fires are a global and recurring problem and their study is difficult and complex, given the high number of natural and man-made variables that contribute to it, either directly or indirectly, being currently one of the main risks in Portugal, where it has assumed an increasingly worrying frequency and dimension, with major environmental, economic, social and, in particular, human impacts.

In this sense, its study and understanding, in its most diverse dimensions, is crucial for the country, so that preventive and/or mitigating measures can be adopted, thus reducing the negative impacts of forest fires.


We have recently been experiencing sensitive episodes related to forest fires in Portugal. This is one of your scientific areas of interest. In this context, how can the scientific community have a positive impact on solving/discussing these problems?

Scientific and technical knowledge, produced by the scientific community, has a very significant impact on all aspects of society. In the case of forest fires, although there is a lot to investigate and know, there is enough scientific knowledge that, if it were (properly) applied, many of the problems would be much less.

In this sense, in our dual capacity as researchers and teachers, it is up to us not only to research and produce science but also to transmit this knowledge to the community and to our students, thus training technicians and scientists who can have an impact in the medium term themselves positive effect in reducing and mitigating fires and their effects.


Do you welcome the possibility of participating in interdisciplinary scientific work in the framework of other areas of study of the CECS?

Yes, it does not make sense to integrate a research unit and not be willing to actively collaborate with the other members of that unit.

At this moment, in two of the FCT applications and in an H2020, previously mentioned, we are, on my own initiative, collaborating with other researchers from CECS, in the area of ​​Communication Sciences and Sociology.
Being a Geographer, it is easy to work in multidisciplinary teams and Physical Geography and environmental studies are important in many interdisciplinary studies, coordinated or with the participation of the other areas of study of CECS.

In the specific case of forest fires, its study being difficult and complex, given the high number of natural and man-made variables that contribute to it, either directly or indirectly, as previously mentioned, it is vitally important to integrate different aspects of social sciences in projects aimed at understanding them, but also, for example, their communication.


How can a social science researcher contribute positively to society?

The main thematic area of ​​my research is positioned at the interface between the social sciences and the earth and environmental sciences and as such, I believe that when science is produced, in any area of ​​knowledge, we are contributing to society, because, knowledge, when, and if, well used, is an asset in social, environmental and economic terms.

In the case of research in the field of forest fires, for example, knowledge can contribute to foster a culture of self-protection in populations, make different territories more resilient to fires, prevent their occurrence and mitigate and mitigate their consequences, revealing themselves crucial in the current context of climate deregulation, with a new reality, where the great fires have become more recurrent and more destructive.

[Posted: 05-05-2020 | Photos: Nuno Gonçalves and Marta Eusébio Barbosa]