Q&A: How the Franco dictatorship destroyed Spanish science

Francisco Franco ruled over Spain from 1939 until his death in 1975. His nationalist, authoritarian regime had a brutal grip on the country's political and cultural life—but also on science, according to Education, science and ideology in Spain (1890–1950), a recent book published in Spanish. In it, Manuel Castillo Martos and Juan Luis Rubio Mayoral show that Francoism smothered research and relied on Opus Dei, a conservative Catholic institution, to police academic life.

ScienceInsider talked to Castillo Martos; this exchange has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q: You studied chemistry during Franco's dictatorship in the 1960s. What did you yourself experience at university at the time?

A: I remember taking a biology class by Pedro Castro Barea, who imbued his teaching with liberal, humanist principles. I could see the difference with other, more conservative lecturers. Before I had him as a lecturer, Castro Barea was ousted from the university for 5 years, then accepted back in but demoted as part of Franco's depuración, or “purging.”

Q: What did "purging" mean?

A: In the book, we explain that “purging committees” were created in each Spanish university to identify academics that the government wanted to remove based on their political or religious ideas. Some were removed from their university chair, others could not return to the university at all, some were jailed. Some could not leave the country, but many academics left—including over a hundred who went into exile in Mexico.

Q: What other means did Franco's regime use to control academic inquiry?

A: We found unpublished data about prohibitions in Spanish universities banning Darwin's books. The Franco regime defended the literalism of the Bible, which was considered an infallible account, inspired by the word of God. Scientific ideas that contradicted it, such as Darwinist evolution, were considered unacceptable. For example, in the last years of Francoism, religious censors prohibited science broadcaster Félix Rodríguez de la Fuente from using the phrase “the sea, the cradle of life” on public television.

Q: You write that in 1937, Franco dissolved the Board for the Advancement of Studies and Scientific Research (JAE), set up in 1909 to promote Spanish science and exchanges with foreign researchers.

A: The modernization of science under the JAE was stopped by the Spanish Civil War [between Republicans and Franco's nationalists]. Franco was determined to bury the spirit of renewal that [the] JAE represented. The regime kept the infrastructure but destroyed everything else, including grants to send Spanish scientists abroad or invite foreign scientists to Spain.

Q: Then in 1939, Franco created what today is the largest public science body in Spain, the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC). How did it differ from the JAE?

A: Under Franco, the CSIC was in the hands of the Opus Dei. That's the reality. The spirit of the JAE years was gone completely. But those who were responsible for repression against researchers were the political authorities, not the CSIC as an institution.

Q: How did Spanish science recover after Franco's dictatorship ended?

A: After 1975, we saw a return to the JAE's spirit, helping professors to spend time abroad. I myself spent time in Germany after my doctorate. I think the CSIC has gotten completely over its early history and reached a high scientific level. It carries out international research projects and has opened up to all continents. But in the past few years, it's suffered severe budget cuts, so we're seeing a decline again. There's a latent neo-Francoism under the current [conservative] government.

Q: Are dictatorships in general bad for science?

A: We see similarities between what happened in Spain and other dictatorships in Portugal, Greece, or Germany. Science, and knowledge in general, have to develop and progress free from any ideological bonds, be they religious or political. That's what no dictatorial regime can tolerate or admit.