Swiss vote to bring back quotas on immigration puts science under threat

19 Feb 2014 | News

Switzerland’s beacon status as a hub for collaboration and excellence in science is in question after the suspension of talks on the country’s association in the €80B Horizon 2020 and €14.7B Erasmus programmes

Swiss researchers are pondering the ramifications for grant applications and international research collaborations after the European Commission suspended negotiations on the country’s participation in Horizon 2020, the EU’s €80 billion R&D programme, and Erasmus, the €14.7 billion researcher exchange scheme.

The talks were halted after a referendum in Switzerland last week delivered a narrow majority in favour of bringing back strict quotas for immigration from EU countries, prompting the government to renege on an agreement to grant free movement to migrants from Croatia, the EU’s newest member. 

The suspension of talks is, “extremely disappointing” and a “disaster for Swiss education and research,” said Barbara Haering, Co-Chair of the European Research and Innovation Area Board. “This is an unwelcome period of uncertainty,” she said.

Roland Siegwart, Vice President for Research and Corporate Relations at ETH Zurich agreed, “the timing is unfortunate,” with Swiss researchers in the thick of responding to the first Horizon 2020 calls, published in December. For Siegwart, the potential financial ramifications of losing the association country tag are relatively less important than the resultant loss of status. 

François Baur, Deputy Head of international relations at the Swiss Business Federation, shared this worry. “The risk is now that Swiss institutions can no longer be in the lead of projects and this, more than the financial, aspect worries us,” he said. 

One of the prime aims of Horizon 2020 is to attract more small technology companies to take part. Domenico Alexakis, CEO of the Swiss Biotech Association said, “suspension will likely entail a greater workload for people” but that there’s no “visible impact yet” for SMEs, as Horizon 2020 has only just begun.

It was not unexpected that the Commission would deliver such a strong message that freedom of movement lies at the heart of Horizon 2020, Erasmus, and the European Research Area. However, no one is walking away from the negotiating table. “We will wait to see what the Swiss government proposes. We can still talk about creating a win-win solution for both sides,” Paul Rübig, MEP told Science|Business. 

“We very much hope the situation will be resolved and we’re planning on that basis,” said Michael Browne, Head of European Research and Innovation at University College London (UCL). “There’s a very strong excellence base in Switzerland and we very much want Switzerland to play a significant part in Horizon 2020.”

Associated status

Although Switzerland is not a member of the EU, its associated country status means its scientists are eligible to apply for funding and to lead projects, and its institutions to host European Research Council grant holders, in the same way as any EU member state. In return for associated status, countries contribute to the €80 billion Horizon 2020 budget, with Switzerland expected to put in €3.6 billion over the seven-year programme - and sign an Association Agreement. 

Under the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) which ended last year, Swiss researchers participated in 600 new projects a year and were awarded €1.8 billion in areas such as information technology, health and nanosciences, as EU research Commissioner Maire Geoghegan-Quinn, noted when she was in Berne last month as part of her road tour to launch Horizon 2020 across Europe. Overall, Switzerland was the fourth most successful country in terms of approved proposals, underlining what is at stake in the current row.

The Erasmus programme, which gives opportunities to Europeans to study and gain work experience abroad – is important to the Swiss too. Haering views students spending time abroad, exchanging views and forming early partnerships, as almost “a pre-condition for a career in research.”  

Currently 2,814 Swiss students per year go abroad for study and work placements, while 2,673 students come to Switzerland, mostly from Denmark, Spain and France. 

Switzerland has also done well out of the European Research Council (ERC). As of December 2013, 318 ERC grant holders are based in Switzerland, of which 75 per cent are non-Swiss nationals. The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology of Lausanne (EPFL) is host to 90 ERC-funded projects. 

Under ERC rules, the research it funds must be conducted in an EU member state or associated country.  “Without the ERC, we would lose a benchmark of excellence,” Haering said, “Coming to Switzerland may not be as attractive any more for researchers and professors.”

Such is the prestige of ERC grants that, “It's a bit as if our skiers were told: 'You ski very well but you won't be able to go to the Olympic Games […] to measure against skiers from all over the world',” said Dominique Arlettaz, Vice President of the Rectors' Conference of the Swiss Universities. 

Carry on as normal

The Swiss State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation (SERI) has recommended Swiss researchers to carry on as normal and, “continue to respond to and actively participate in open calls for Horizon 2020.” Haering backs this approach, saying it is, “an important signal of commitment; one that says we really want to be a part of Horizon 2020.” 

And the message has also gone out to researchers across the EU not to drop Swiss partners. Danièle Rod, at the Swiss mission in Brussels says, “The clear message for European researches is that if you’re planning research consortia, it’s absolutely possible to have a Swiss partner.” 

However, provision is being made for a scenario in which Switzerland is left with non-association status. SERI advises potential Swiss project partners to make sure their proposal respects the required minimum number of consortium partners from three institutions from three different EU member states or associated states (not including Switzerland). If they cross this threshold, they can still participate. 

Switzerland also has the backstop of funding. “It’s most likely the case that there will be national funding,” said Rod. “It would need to be channelled differently, but it is there.”

Diplomatic repair work

Whilst there were initial fears for the status of the flagship €1 billion Human Brain Project, funded under FP7 for its first phase and hosted by EPFL, a Commission official confirmed its funding will continue until Spring 2016. As yet, there’s no clear message as to what happens thereafter. 

Jerome Grosse, a spokesman for the EPFL rejected claims that this was any particular cause for worry. “We have no big concerns for funding until 2016 and the renegotiation of the second part of the funding,” he said. “There’s no impression that Europe will renegotiate the project – it’s among the top research in the world.”

Switzerland’s diplomatic repair work is kicking off. Initial exploratory talks are taking place in Brussels today (20 February) between Yves Rossier, Switzerland's coordinator for relations with the EU, and David O'Sullivan, a senior EU diplomat. Maja Kocijancic, an EU spokesperson, said that a public announcement is expected afterwards. 

No one expects a breakthrough at this stage, but researchers hope for some alleviation of doubt. September, when Horizon 2020’s first consortium contracts on research projects are due to be signed, will loom in peoples’ minds.

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