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Students marched in Barcelona, Spain, today to defend their "right to decide" Catalonia's fate, just days before a disputed independence referendum.

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Researchers caught in growing rift over Catalan independence

REUS, SPAIN—Scientists in Catalonia are feeling the ripples of a severe crisis as the region’s bid for independence from Spain comes to a head.

Researchers have much at stake in the independence referendum, scheduled for 1 October in defiance of Madrid’s central government. Nationalists trust that Catalan science would thrive in a nimbler, independent state of 7.5 million people and become a beacon of a new, progressive republic. Others fear that the secession would plunge science into isolating uncertainty, cut access to essential funding streams and networks, and spark a brain drain.

Like other regions of Spain, Catalonia has a distinct language and a strong sense of cultural difference that were repressed under Francisco Franco’s dictatorship, which ended in 1975. As an autonomous community of Spain, it has its own Parliament and government, the Generalitat, in Barcelona that manage a range of devolved powers from the region’s cosmopolitan capital. But Catalan nationalists say they want a separate state with complete control over its finances and policies—a sentiment that has soared in recent years.

In the past 15 years or so, reforms have helped turn the region into a vibrant scientific spot and a magnet for top international researchers. The Generalitat set up 41 Research Centers of Catalonia, which aimed to break free from rigid recruitment and funding rules that weigh down their Spanish counterparts and now employ about 5000 people. In 2001, it also created the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies, a publicly funded foundation that offers attractive tenured positions and now employs 258 researchers across Catalan institutions.

The efforts have paid off. Between 2007 and 2015, researchers in Catalonia won 210 grants from the European Research Council, worth a combined €334 million. Per capita, this places Catalonia in fourth place, behind Switzerland, Israel, and the Netherlands, according to the Generalitat.

“In case of independence, we have to extend this model and not revolutionize it,” says geneticist Arcadi Navarro, the Generalitat’s secretary for universities and research. Catalonia could push its science further if the Generalitat controlled its taxes, as well as rules over venture capital and private sponsorship of research, he says. “With complete autonomy, we could change the system completely,” adds Roderic Guigó, a bioinformatics professor at the Center for Genomic Regulation in Barcelona. Guigó co-founded the blog Scientists for Independence, which has published contributions from about 80 researchers.

“This is not a war” against scientists outside of Catalonia, says physicist Jordi Fraxedas, coordinator of the universities and research sector at the Catalan National Assembly, an independentist organization. “What matters are personal relationships [between international researchers]. What we want is to do science. We will keep collaborating,” adds Fraxedas, who works at a research center in Barcelona funded jointly by Catalonia and Spain.

But many other scientists think such optimism is unfounded, or even delusional. In particular, they worry that they would lose access to essential funding from Madrid and the European Union’s Horizon 2020, as well as to international research facilities such as CERN, the European particle physics laboratory near Geneva, Switzerland—unless and until Catalonia signs and pays for bilateral agreements, which may take several years. Thousands of research staff in Catalonia get their salaries from Madrid, and the region, which is home to 16% of Spain’s population, receives about 24% of Spanish subsidies for R&D and innovation.

Juan José Ganuza, an economist at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, is one of few scientists in Catalonia who has spoken out publicly against independence. Ganuza tells ScienceInsider he is “sad” and “scared” about what he sees as an inward-looking movement, echoing the recent Brexit vote or Trump’s “America First” posture. Spain’s research system has much room for improvement, but Catalonia’s recent scientific success proves that is possible without a breakup, he adds. “Although many Catalan researchers are [in favor of independence], I believe that if Catalan science had a voice, it would not be an independentist one,” Ganuza wrote in a column published in Spanish newspaper El País 2 years ago. “Science fundamentally depends on human capital and talent, and inevitably many valuable people would leave.”

But science plays a minor role in the conflict, and escalating tensions between Barcelona and Madrid leave little space to ponder these opposing scenarios. Spain deems the vote illegal and has taken aggressive steps to stop it. Under a judge’s order, national police raided Catalan government offices, arrested 14 officials, and confiscated voting materials.

Spain’s finance ministry also included universities and research centers in a list of organizations that it suspects of aiding the vote’s logistics. “This list has been sent to banks so that they can block and control day-to-day financial activities without any kind of direct prior warning,” the institutions complained in a statement issued on 21 September.

The hostile stance has aggravated moderates, fueled separatist fervor, and triggered expressions of support from abroad. “We are concerned that the level of political repression in Catalonia is of a severity and arbitrary character not experienced since the Franco dictatorship,” a group of U.K. academics warned in a letter published by The Guardian.

The Generalitat has pledged to declare independence unilaterally within 2 days of a positive referendum result, and irrespective of the turnout.

*Update, 29 September 2017, 7.30 a.m.:  This article has been updated to include figures of Spanish research funding in Catalonia.