Talented scientific experts: Catalonia's 21st century diaspora

Numerous talented Catalan researchers are pioneering new research in a prestigious British university but they still cannot find a job in Catalonia.

CNA / Laura Pous

January 20, 2011 10:24 PM

London (ACN) .- Xavier Casadevall and Julius Klein from Catalonia are part of a select team of researchers at one of the most prestigious universities in the world, the Imperial College of London. Although they left Catalonia to continue their studies in engineering in the United States, they ended up being sent to London and are yet come home to Catalonia. According to the two academics, the academic and professional level in Catalonia “is complicated”. "In Catalonia, it is just so hard to find a position as a researcher," says Julius, an expert in medical robotics. Although the two Catalans believe that research “is improving” in Catalonia, they feel that it is impossible to find a job in Catalonia that is as attractive as the offers available in London.

Xavier and Julius are passionate about research and excited about their work. They left Catalonia soon after graduating in chemical engineering and mechanical engineering. Thanks to a Fellowship programme provided by the Catalan Government, they were able to study a Masters at the University of Irvine in California. Once they were there, they wanted to further expand their studies so they did a PhD.

London: more powerful and more resources

“After finishing my PhD in the USA, I thought for a while about the options I had”, says Xavier, who then decided to return to Europe for a year and a half in the middle of the economic crisis. And the city that offered the best employment opportunities for his professional profile was not his native Barcelona, but London. “Out of the top seven universities in the world, four are here in the UK”, he says, “Imperial College London, University College London, Oxford and Cambridge”. Meanwhile in Spain, the best university is the University of Barcelona, which is rated as the 148th best university in the world.

“That does not mean that Barcelona has a lower level of research or that is not a good university”, says Xavier. In fact, the academic thinks that the level of micro-fluids research in Catalonia “is improving”, and says that there is a huge interest in it for research purposes. So it is not due to a lack of motivation that he does not want to return to his homeland, but because of the fact that, in his words, "the level of research is more powerful and more established in the Imperial College of London and above all has much more resources". In fact, he adds,”the university has 14 Nobel laureates among its members”.

“I would love to have the option of returning to Catalonia if the opportunities were as good as they were here”, continues Xavier, “that would be really convenient for me”. “In fact, it would be ideal as my entire family are there and it would be much better”, he says somewhat excited by the scenario. “But obviously, at this point by my career, it is more important to have the best opportunities possible for me and my wife. For the moment, we are better off here”.

The challenges for Catalonia

Julius, who specialises in robotics research, shares this opinion. “I would love to go back to Catalonia but unfortunately the conditions are just not adequate”. According to the young researcher, the country needs to think about an economic model for the future, especially now that the economic crisis has demonstrated the infeasibility of the construction industry. “We need to change the mentality and realise that researching new things is the only way forward for an economy that is stagnated”, Julius argues.

“We need to find new ways to make Catalonia stronger and create a culture based on innovation”, he adds. According to the researchers, to be a competitive country, you cannot just keep using the same production models of the past. For them, resources must be focused in brainstorming new technologies, not just in manufacturing. In other words, research must be strengthened to 'design' products of the future and Catalonia should not just be a place where factories are installed- but rather, it must rethink its ideas and think of relocating to other countries even. “We have to believe in ourselves”, says Julius.

Tom sees a real interest in doing research. It is key to change the type of economy we have in Catalonia but he believes there is still a long way to go. Barcelona has gone up in the international ranking for the best cities for research excellence, and is in the 54th place in the world, according to the journal Nature. According the young researchers, Catalonia still has a lot of challenges like expanding resources for research and offering more attractive career opportunities for many educated Catalans who have experience and qualifications but are incapable of going back home due to the lack of suitable job opportunities.