A return to science and calmer waters
Arcadi Navarro looks out on to the sea from one of the balconies at the Barcelona Biomedical Research Park | ® Santi Trullenque
Núria Jar (Barcelona) | April 2019
Research is a source of satisfaction for Arcadi Navarro, especially the study of the diversity of life and, more specifically, human life. "You come here and you feel the happiness of being able to practice science and talk to other people who love science too," he says during his ninth week as a researcher at Barcelona Biomedical Research Park (PRBB). The previous three years had seen him put his scientific career on hold to join the Government of former Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont as Secretary of Universities and Research. "I'm starting to feel comfortable," he says in his new ecosystem, following a few months' sabbatical in Edinburgh back at the end of 2018. He went to Scotland to get reacquainted with his discipline of population genetics. But his time there was also one of transition, from a life of politics back to a life of science.
At the beginning of 2019, Navarro returned to his position as ICREA research professor in the Experimental and Health Sciences department at Pompeu Fabra University (UPF) in Barcelona, and as a researcher at the Institute of Evolutionary Biology (IBE), a joint institute founded by UPF and the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC). “It was very moving in the beginning, like coming back after a long illness," he says of the way he was received by his former colleagues. In his absence, his research group dissolved and his office was moved from the fourth to the seventh floor.
Arcadi Navarro returned to his position as researcher and lecturer in January 2019 | ® Santi Trullenque
TRANSCRIPTION. It was very moving in the beginning, in the first two or three weeks. People's incredible positivity, the smiles, the warmth, like I was coming back after a long illness. Everyone wanted to help, update me, tell me what had happened, what I needed to know, they wanted to lend me a hand.
Navarro's previous period as a researcher was fairly prolific and his articles tended to cause ripples in the press. For instance, he was part of the team that retrieved and sequenced the complete genome of a human from 7,000 years ago. He did the same with the DNA from the inside of a gourd that had mistakenly been attributed to the French king Louis XVI and that of albino gorilla Snowflake, one of the symbols of Barcelona.
Arcadi Navarro working in his office | ® Santi Trullenque
One of the names that always appears in these articles is that of Tomàs Marquès-Bonet. The scientist was Navarro's first PhD student and is now, like his teacher, an ICREA research professor at UPF. A couple of years ago, he was appointed director of IBE. "Now it's his turn to be boss," said Navarro, as he considers the return to his roots. With no research group of his own, Navarro has joined Marquès-Bonet's comparative genomics lab. And this is where he has his office.
On the shelves are books and objects that tell his story. One of the relics in his office is the Macintosh SEI30 owned by Nick Barton, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Edinburgh. The computer, he says, still works and contains some of his colleague's articles. Relaxed now, he reveals how he used the same model to do his first piece of paid work: the digitisation of the Royal Spanish Academy dictionary. "I worked on the letter A," he says with a smile.
Arcadi Navarro reading in his office | ® Santi Trullenque
Computers are a constant in the biologist's career. On another shelf stands a circuit board from the Barcelona Supercomputing Center – Centro Nacional de Supercomputación (BSC-CNS) computer, MareNostrum III. Navarro was a member of the centre's board of trustees when he was Secretary of Universities and Research. The supercomputer can be found in what is now a deconsecrated chapel. He visits the place every week as one of the custodians of the European Genome-phenome Archive (EGA), which keeps the data of 800,000 people from all over the world. "I am more of a computational theorist," he says. "Other people take care of the experimental side."
Barcelona, city of science
More than eight million people visited Barcelona last year, according to figures from the City Council. Many tourists tend to gather the area close to the beach, with its hotels, restaurants and clubs. But there's also science in among the racket. The PRBB helps shape the coast, in a unique building with its wooden façade and an elliptical and truncated cone shape that gradually leans towards the sea. Its hollow interior means the different floors stack in a U-shape around balconies and a central courtyard. More than 1,300 people work in six biomedical research centres within the building, which is part of a complex that also features an animal facility, a hospital and a university.
Arcadi Navarro teaches his first human genomics class at UPF | ® Santi Trullenque
In addition to research, Navarro teaches human genomics on the Master's course in Bioinformatics for Health Sciences at UPF. Today is his first class, but he already knows the names of many of his students. He tried to memorise them the day before, and if he can't remember, he asks. Seventeen young men and women sit in the first four rows of the lecture theatre while the back two are empty. He is constantly asking them questions. "Whether they learn or not depends on the relationship they have with me," he says. So far, he's managed to trigger quite a few smiles.
He talks about genetic heritage, Mendelian traits, genetic epidemiology and great scientists such as Ronald A. Fisher. He has a humanistic approach, combining both science and history. One of the anecdotes in the class, however, focuses on FC Barcelona. Navarro tells how he received a call from a radio programme asking whether you could clone Leo Messi. After a few hours, several media outlets were featuring his words. The scientist highlights his "favourite", which was published in digital media outlet El Español: “Arcadi Navarro, the pro-independence politician who wants to clone Messi." The students laugh and Navarro completes the story. “This is the first bloody time in my life that my brother-in-law who doesn’t bloody care about science, but he is obsessed about [sic] football, think [sic] that I am doing something important”.
TRANSCRIPTION. “You could clone Messi and you would get a very similar being”, “A scientist says Messi could be cloned with current technology”. And my favourite: “Arcadi Navarro, the pro-independence politician who wants to clone Messi” [laughter]. This is El Español, right? And this all happened last week and this is the first bloody time in my life that my brother-in-law who doesn’t bloody care about science, but he is obsessed about [sic] football, thinks that I am doing something important [laughter].
The headlines combine football, science and politics. This is because the independence referendum held in Catalonia on 1 October 2017, when Navarro was a member of Puigdemont's Government, remains a hot topic. The subject has now rekindled people's interest with the trial of Catalonia's pro-independence leaders taking place in the Supreme Court. The proceedings started on 12 February and the trial has become a televised spectacle.
He tries not to follow the case too closely because he has friends and acquaintances among the accused. "I am trying not to experience this as if it were a soap opera." He adds that he is "angry" because he believes it is "a terrible injustice" due to "the absolute lack of independence and the tremendous bias of the State judiciary's leaders."
TRANSCRIPTION. “I feel the anger that anybody else should feel, whether they're on the left or on the right, whether they support independence or not. The obvious absolute lack of independence and the tremendous bias of the State judiciary's leaders."
Arcadi Navarro in one of the corridors at UPF where he teaches | ® Santi Trullenque
After his short but intense stint in politics, Navarro believes science has little to learn from that world. On the other hand, he does believe politics could learn a lot from science. "For starters, it could learn to distinguish facts from opinions. Politicians should also learn to openly change their minds when new facts emerge. Politics should show more love for the truth," he says, from his new position in calmer waters.
Arcadi Navarro with his mobile on one of the balconies at PRBB, where a group of researchers have lunch in the sun. | ® Santi Trullenque
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 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.