Opportunity and risk for Catalan research in independence debate

Breaking free from Madrid may reduce bureaucracy for universities, but could endanger funding

October 2, 2017
Catalan selfie
Source: Getty

Catalonia's referendum has brought into sharp focus the potential benefits of independence for science in the region, but it has also highlighted the potential pitfalls that researchers could face if relations between the separatist region and Madrid sour further.

Catalonia is one of Spain’s richest regions, providing 19 per cent of Spain’s gross domestic product. It is home to thriving industry, several top universities and research centres, and punches well above its weight in terms of the excellence of its research.

For example, Times Higher Education analysis of Catalan universities' performance in the World University Rankings shows that the region is third behind only the Netherlands and Sweden in terms of average scores for the citation impact of institutions' research, among countries with at least five entries in the table. On the same measure, the rest of Spain without Catalonia, meanwhile, ranks 25th.

In the most recent round of European Research Council grants for early career researchers, 10 of the 22 awards for scientists based in Spain went to those at institutions in Catalonia, despite the region comprising just 16 per cent of the country’s population.

Advocates of independence argue that Catalonia’s government has already acted to free universities from some of the bureaucracy that hampers academic recruitment and promotion in the rest of Spain, and claim that independence would allow this process to be accelerated.

Arcadi Navarro, secretary for universities and research in the Catalan government, said that independence would enable him to implement policy measures that Madrid has so far banned.

“They would include the development of a fiscal policy aimed to foster private donations, whose treatment is now worse than in many other European countries,” said Professor Navarro, director of the department of experimental and health sciences at Barcelona’s Pompeu Fabra University. “Also, we would leverage on private investments to ensure that knowledge better reaches society.”

These would be possible only if the Catalan government had control over tax legislation, and the power to regulate credit operations and the mechanisms for venture capital, Professor Navarro added.

Many credit Andreu Mas-Colell, emeritus professor of economics at Pompeu Fabra, as the architect of the current research system in Catalonia. Professor Mas-Colell, who served as Catalonia’s minister of economy and knowledge from 2010 to 2016, said that the Catalan government placed a higher priority on research than the Spanish government.

“Anything that gives the Catalan government more fiscal resources is good for research in Catalonia,” he said.

However, Professor Mas-Colell cautioned that funding would remain a key concern, even after independence.

“The research system has been quite efficient in transforming core support from the Catalan government into budgets that on average are three times larger. This is hard to improve,” he said.  

Meanwhile, independence brings its own risks. A major question mark hangs over the relationship between an independent Catalonia and the European Union, with Madrid determined to prevent a breakaway country from joining. This could limit Catalan universities’ access to research funding.

There are shorter-term concerns, too. In the weeks leading up to 1 October, the Spanish Ministry of Finance and Civil Service took measures to take control of the financial affairs of universities and research centres.

“These measures are unjustified, unnecessary and they are endangering academic activities in Catalonia,” Professor Navarro said, adding that they “damage the credibility” of the institutions and individuals working on international projects.

One researcher affected by the financial restrictions is Roderic Guigó, coordinator of the bioinformatics programme at the Centre for Genomic Regulation in Barcelona.

“I have funding from the European Research Council and the National Institutes of Health [and] every expense that I have in terms of research has to be justified to the Spanish government,” he said. “This direct intervention of the Spanish government into science will have an impact.”

Day to day, it means that administrative staff “have to devote extra time” to complete the justifications for spending, which leaves them with less time to support researchers in other ways, Professor Guigó said.

Professor Guigó added that these tactics could cause people considering relocating to Catalonia to rethink their plans, undermining one of the region’s key strengths.

“We know that if you want to compete in science you need to be able to attract the best from the entire world, not only from your country, and this is something that we managed to achieve,” he said.

holly.else@timeshighereducation.com

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