Alfredo Baratas Díaz is Full Professor of Science History at the School of Biology at the Complutense University of Madrid as well as the author of Primer Centenario de un Premio Nobel: Ramón y Cajal (Centennial of a Nobel Prize: Ramón y Cajal). Last May 7th Baratas Díaz gave a talk in Valencia entitled Biological Research in Early Francoist Spain, where he talked about political agendas, the limitations imposed by the dictatorship and the changes scientific institutions underwent after the Civil War. In this interview we review the history of Spanish research with this expert on 19th and 20th century Spanish Science History.
Tell us a bit about your conference. If nowadays it is quite difficult working on research, how did people manage to carry out research projects during Franco’s dictatorship?
They sort of made do. In the conference, I have split this period in two: the first part covers early Francoism and the dismantling of the pre-war scientific system as well as the exile of scientists who disagreed with the new government; the second, covers a reconstruction period that created a new scientific body based on a completely different ideology whose aims were radically opposed to the previous system. I feel they did research in a very utilitarian way. They put basic research aside and promoted applied research when resources were scarce. However, they were really trying to carry out serious scientific research. We have to make an effort to understand that our scientific development comes from the science developed at the time. By and large, we still have the same institutions. They have evolved, but they were our starting point for better or for worse.
«We wouldn’t be able to understand the nervous system without Cajal’s histological and anatomical work»
You are an expert on Ramón y Cajal’s life and works, and have even written a book on this scientist. What did «The Neuron Doctrine» mean for scientists? Did it mark a before and an after in Spanish research?
Undoubtedly yes. They meant a lot for neuroscience. We wouldn’t be able to understand the nervous system without Cajal’s histological and anatomical work. All of a sudden, we have people capable of competing with first-rate countries. There is no town in Spain that has not a street honouring Ramón y Cajal. Even nowadays, when society thinks about some scientist, they think of Ramón y Cajal. For me, Cajal’s role promoting scientific research in Spain is very important. His scientific work is highly important and, together with other scientists, he led the Spanish scientific revolution until it was stopped in 1936. For me, this makes him a very relevant figure.
How would you describe current Spanish scientific research?
I am not an expert on science policy, but I do think we have many challenges to face: funding, investments in science and technology are still very low; innovation, since we have to encourage a balanced scientific research that promotes economic profits. On the other hand, we have also changed a lot, like many other countries. I use Finland as an example for my students: they are popular for being the clumsiest among Nordic countries. However, in a relatively long period and with constant funding, they have been capable of reaching levels of competence. Ours are hard times, but we must make an effort to envisage how we want our science to be in near future.
We have been talking about our past, our present and now it’s time you give your opinion about the future, taking into account that many young people are choosing to migrate to other countries.
It is a shame, aside from being absolutely uneconomic. We should declare the state of emergency to avoid these things from happening. An average university student costs us around 8,000 euros per year, aside from the tuition fee the student pays for him or herself. We can’t let this economic effort made by society as a whole be wasted. We are educating professionals, great professionals, who are not re-investing in our country. I don’t want to make an economic analysis of the situation but: we are wasting money. And the solution does not lie in not educating them. Since they are well educated and able to perform a good job, I have to provide resources for them to work with, emphasising that those resources will later on result in profits.