Catalan scientists ponder
fate after independence vote
As a science hub, would the region do better on its own?
Scientists in Catalonia are facing an uncertain future as the region’s bid for independence from Spain, which as divided the research commu- nity here, plunges the country into a profound crisis. On 1 October, about
2 million people in the region— 42.6% of
eligible citizens—reportedly voted in an independence referendum, held in defiance
of Spain’s government and constitutional
court and marred by police clashes. The
Catalan government says 89% voted in favor of leaving Spain, opening the door to a
declaration of independence.
What happens next is unclear—but
there is a lot at stake for science. Research
in Catalonia has prospered recently and
Barcelona, the region’s cosmopolitan capital, has emerged as one of southern Europe’s top science hubs. Scientists favoring
independence trust they would do even better in a nimbler, separate state of 7. 5 million
people. But other researchers fear that a secession would isolate the region, cut access
to essential funding streams and networks,
and spark a brain drain.
With its own language, Catalonia has a
strong sense of cultural difference that was
repressed under Francisco Franco’s dictator-
ship until 1975. Today, it has its own Parlia-
ment and government, the Generalitat, in
Barcelona. But Catalan nationalists want a
separate state with complete control over
its finances and policies. Shocking images of
Spanish police attempting to stop Sunday’s
vote by force—and injuring almost 900—
have only hardened their views.
Catalonia already enjoys some autonomy
in its research policy. The Generalitat has
set up 41 research centers, which aimed to
break free from rigid recruitment and funding rules that weigh down their Spanish
counterparts; it also funds a foundation that
offers attractive tenured positions across
Catalan institutions. Foreign researchers
have flocked to the region.
“In case of independence, we have to ex-
tend this model and not revolutionize it,”
says geneticist Arcadi Navarro, the Generali-
tat’s secretary for universities and research.
Catalonia could push its science further if
the Generalitat controlled its taxes, as well
as rules governing venture capital and pri-
vate sponsorship of research, he says. “This
is not a war” against scientists outside of
Catalonia, says physicist Jordi Fraxedas of
the Catalan Institute of Nanoscience and
Nanotechnology near Barcelona, which
is funded jointly by Catalonia and Spain.
“What we want is to do science. We will
But many other scientists think such op-
timism is unfounded, or even delusional.
They worry about losing access to essential
funding from the central government in Ma-
drid and the European Union’s Horizon 2020
program, as well as to international research
facilities. Thousands of research staff in Cat-
alonia get their salaries from Madrid, and
the region, which is home to 16% of Spain’s
population, receives about 24% of Spanish
subsidies for R&D and innovation.
Juan José Ganuza, an economist at Pom-peu Fabra University in Barcelona, says he
is “sad” and “scared” about what he sees as
an inward-looking movement, echoing the
recent Brexit vote or U.S. President Donald
Trump’s “America First” posture. Spain’s
research system has much room for improvement, but Catalonia’s recent scientific
success proves that is possible without a
breakup, Ganuza says. j
By Tania Rabesandratana, in Reus, Spain
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NEWS | IN DEPTH
Spanish police officers drag a man away from a
polling station in Barcelona on 1 October.