04 IN THE MIDST OF POLITICAL TURBULENCE  |  SPAIN

The phone-call

that changes everything

Part 1

Arcadi Navarro in his office at the Secretariat for Universities and Research. He wears a yellow ribbon on his lapel, as a symbol of the call for imprisoned Catalan politicians to be freed. | ® Santi Trullenque

September 2018

Phones are constantly interrupting our conversation. He warns the voice on the other side of the line that he is surrounded by people and cannot say "exactly" what he wants because there are journalists in the room. "You know, don't you? It's just like last Monday. The difference is that now we know more," he says in code. When he hangs up, he provides the beseeching faces with an answer. "I'm being fired tomorrow," he confesses with a nervous laugh, seven minutes into the conversation.

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TRANSCRIPTION. [hangs up the phone] "No, I'm being fired tomorrow, yes" [nervous laughter].

Population Genetics researcher Arcadi Navarro continues with what has just become his last interview as the Government of Catalonia's Secretary for Universities and Research. The Executive has cleared out all its Departments following regional elections held for the first time by the Spanish Government after Catalan President Carles Puigdemont and his Ministers were removed from office.

The telephone in Arcadi Navarro's office is ringing constantly. In one of the calls, he is told that the new Government will dismiss him the next day. | ® Santi Trullenque

One of the most critical dates in this story is 1 October 2017, when Catalonia held an independence referendum, against the Spanish Government's will. On that day, thousands of Spanish police officers, who had been docked on ships in Barcelona Port for several weeks, attacked voters. Figures from the Catalan Department of Health say medical staff treated more than 1,000 people for their injuries.

The Secretariat for Universities and Research is located at the end of Barcelona's Vía Layetana, looking out on to the city's promenade. | ® Santi Trullenque

A passion for politics has always been part of Navarro's life. As a private citizen, he had long been a member of the Unió Democràtica de Catalunya party, until it subsequently morphed into Demòcrates de Catalunya. Navarro is a founding member. As a politician, however, he considers his time in Government with a degree of astonishment. He describes certain periods as "very tense" and admits to having had a "hard time".

At the end of October 2017, the Catalan Parliament launched a unilateral declaration of independence. At the same time, the Spanish Senate activated article 155 of the Spanish Constitution and took control of the region's autonomy. Six days later, nine members of the ousted Catalan Government were sent to prison on remand, on charges of sedition and rebellion. Meanwhile, the heads of the two social movements in favour of independence, who were accused of the same crimes, had been in prison for weeks.

"People I had just been having a meeting with were taken to prison," says Navarro, whose position is three rungs below the unseated Minister Josep Rull, one of the seven who remain in jail. "There were times when I really didn't know whether they would take me as well."

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TRANSCRIPTION. "People I had just been having a meeting with were taken to prison. There were times when I really didn't know whether they would take me and my fellow secretaries as well. It wasn't clear at all where the repression would end."

He doesn't want to say anymore with the recorder on.

There is an institutional photograph of Puigdemont in Navarro's office. The former President, along with another six Catalan politicians, went into exile in various European countries to avoid the Spanish courts. The European arrest warrants have now been withdrawn. There is, however, no sign in the office of the new President, Quim Torra, who was sworn in before new elections could be called. Navarro explains that this is because his picture has yet to arrive. Torra was the fourth Presidential candidate after Carles Puigdemont, currently in exile in Belgium; Jordi Sánchez, a pro-independence and social leader who has been on remand for almost a year; and Jordi Turull, a former Minister who was incarcerated the day after the failure of the first vote to swear him in as leader.

Arcadi Navarro in his office, working on the computer, with the institutional portrait of Carles Puigdemont and the Catalan flag, the senyera, in the background. | ® Santi Trullenque

During his time in Government, Navarro says he has been more comfortable with the role of public official than that of a politician. "English is a marvellous language because it has two different terms: politician and policy maker," he says. As far as the latter is concerned, Navarro believes that designing strategies and policies should transcend party ideology.

Catalonia has achieved this to some extent in the field of research. The National Research Agreement received all-party approval a decade ago, in an attempt to protect the system. Over the past 30 years, there has been a drive to provide policies and tools to ensure the research system is based on people and not projects, thus attracting both talent and investment. In fact, Navarro defended this very concept in one of his speeches in the Catalan Parliament.

On 2 July, Arcadi Navarro gave his last interview as Secretary for Universities and Research in his office. | ® Santi Trullenque

During the last round of ERC grants, eight of the 18 Spanish projects selected were Catalan. Scientists have secured 3% of European research funds, ahead of countries such as Austria, Norway, Denmark and Finland. "If it weren't for the European Union (EU), the way the Catalan system is designed means it would have hit a limit," says Navarro regarding the "amazing leap forward" shown by Catalan research.

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TRANSCRIPTION. "We had to bring good people here so they could go and get money from the [Spanish] State and from Europe. So you bring good people, you give them the tools they need and what do they do? It turns out they are extremely successful in getting money for research on a state-wide level. And then even more successful at a European level. If it weren't for the European Union, the way the Catalan system is designed means it would have hit a limit."

The latest major restriction placed on science in Catalonia came in the shape of a Ministerial Order from the Spanish Government ahead of the referendum, which took charge of the Catalan Government's accounts and blocked the budget for research centres. Up to 60 institutions—90% of the university and research community—complained about the move in a letter sent to the ERC President and the EU Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation, Carlos Moedas. "If I had been told a year ago that all this was going to happen, I might well have started running for the hills," says Navarro.

Two days after the conversation, Navarro is gathering his belongings in one of the referendum ballot boxes. The edge of the box is broken, which Navarro says is the result of blows from the Spanish police's batons. "I came into the job with an 18-month commitment and in the end, it has lasted for more than a year."

Arcadi Navarro packs away his personal belongings in one of the independence referendum's ballot boxes, after being dismissed from his position. | ® Santi Trullenque

"I'm relieved." He goes on to explain how he is feeling right now. "If I carried on, I would be happy or very happy. Going back to university, on the other hand, would make me very happy or extremely happy," as he reflects on his previous position as the Director of the Department of Experimental Sciences and Health at Universidad Pompeu Fabra (UPF) and a researcher at the Institute of Evolutionary Biology (IBE), which is a joint institution funded by UPF and the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC).

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TRANSCRIPTION "Having done what I have done, if I were to continue, I would be happy or very happy. If I went back to university, back to research, I would be extremely happy or very happy."

Before taking up his research post once again, Arcadi Navarro will spend the last quarter of the year with his family in Edinburgh, where he carried out his postdoctoral research. In 2014, Scotland voted on independence from the United Kingdom. "I think everything—including borders—is open to democratic discussion," he says with conviction. Following his time in politics and now this short sabbatical, Navarro will return to science: an endeavour that believes in taking a systematic approach to the independent thinking that is part of humanity. 

Núria Jar

The journalist

 

Núria Jar is a freelance journalist based in Barcelona. Currently, she writes for La Vanguardia, Muy Interesante, SINC Agency and she has written for the Spanish edition of Scientific American. She also runs a weekly radio section for the most popular radio programme in Catalonia, Via Lliure at RAC1. In addition, she coordinates radio lessons at Master’s degree level in scientific, medical and environmental communication at Pompeu Fabra University.

Arcadi Navarro

The scientist

 

Arcadi Navarro became Secretary for Universities and Research of the Government of Catalonia in January 2016, when Carles Puigdemont was sworn in as president of Catalonia. It was the first time he had held a political position. Professor of Genetics, he was ICREA Research Professor at Universitat Pompeu Fabra (UPF), where he led a research group in Evolutionary Genomics within the Programme of Evolutionary Biology and Complex Systems of the Department of Experimental and Health Sciences, a Department of which he was the Director.

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