Not so Splendid Isolation

(February 18th, 2014) When Swiss voters put an end to the free movement of people between Switzerland and the EU, probably not many thought about scientists. Currently, nobody knows whether it’s worth writing grant applications to the European Commission.

Less than three weeks before the Swiss vote on imposing quotas on EU immigrants, officials from all Universities, Science Academies and the Swiss National Fund issued a "manifesto for Switzerland as an open centre of education and research". They declared that openness and collaboration are the basis for excellence but, despite its long tradition in Switzerland, could not be taken for granted. The signatories showed themselves convinced that the Swiss population would like to keep this trump card. On Sunday, 9 February, that very Swiss population proved them wrong.

The political debates revolved around overcrowded trains, immigrants pushing down salaries and covering the rural countryside with concrete for new homes. Neither the 8th Framework Programme of the European Commission called "Horizon 2020" nor the student exchange programme "Erasmus+" made it to the headlines. One scientist argued in the leftist weekly newspaper "WOZ": "Most academics from technological and natural sciences are rather apolitical. People in my team don't see why anyone would vote in favour of the initiative - they see no logic behind it." The author of the article complained about the predominant head-in-sand attitude of many scientists.

Maybe the scientists felt save because it wasn’t the cities with universities voting in favour of the popular initiative, but the suburbs and the countryside. In Zurich and Lausanne with a foreign population of around 25 percent and two universities each, only about 33 percent voted in favour of the initiative. In some countryside districts the approval rate reached nearly 75 percent.

The politicians of the rightist Swiss People’s Party - the strongest in Switzerland - that launched the initiative are not really concerned about research. When the Swiss parliament approved the budget of 3.6 billion Euros for "Horizon 2020" in June 2013, the Swiss People’s Party voted against it. One representative said back then: "The army is one of the state's core businesses, research isn't." When asked about how to implement the new quotas imposed by the initiative, another representative recently said that they should not affect companies but foreign student numbers should be limited instead.

The number of foreign students (22 percent between 2010 and 2011) and foreign professors (49 percent in 2010 and growing) were already a hot political topic in Switzerland in past years. While universities like to see it as a proof of their quality, many politicians prefer to give money to domestic young talents.

After the vote, researchers at Swiss universities fear that the important "Horizon 2020" research agreement with the EU will not be signed. Indeed, as a first consequence, the EU has postponed negotiations.

Although Switzerland is not a member of the EU, it participates in the multi-billion Euro Framework Programmes since 1987 when the 2nd Framework Programme was launched. These programmes are linked to a system of more than one hundred bilateral agreements. One fundamental pillar of these agreements is the free movement of people. Its extension to the new EU member state, Croatia, was made a condition for signing the agreement. But after the vote, this extension seems rather unlikely.

Currently, Switzerland is highly successful with European projects. The ETH Board that governs the federal institutes ETH Zurich and EPF Lausanne wrote in April 2013 that Switzerland received 1.5 Euros for every Euro spent from the 7th Framework Programme. Both Universities would rank third and fourth behind Cambridge and Oxford when counting all received ERC grants from the past five calls for application. ERC grants have become the second most important competitive source of financing after those from the Swiss National Fund.

But money can be at least partially replaced - reputation and collaboration cannot. "It is the capacity of comparing us to others, to participate, that is at stake. If we are not able to attract the best researchers, the whole university system in Switzerland would be suffering," said Patrick Aebischer, the president of the EPF Lausanne on the French-speaking Swiss Radio. The rector of the University of Basel, Antonio Loprieno, told the German-speaking counterpart: "This would be a step towards mediocrity, which is something to be scared of."

So, everyone is anxiously awaiting renegotiations between Switzerland and the EU. The Swiss State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation states that "because of the potential uncertainty” about the future participation status of Switzerland (as an associated or third party country), researchers in Switzerland should check whether participants from another country could take the lead of the projects. Applicants for ERC and Marie Curie grants should proceed according to the requirements of the European Commission.

Florian Fisch

Photo: Fotolia/Pitcha T.

Last Changes: 03.28.2014