Theresa May has just returned from her summer holiday, hiking in the Swiss Alps. Mingling with the scent of pine needles warming in the summer sun, it is possible that the prime minister will have detected a familiar whiff of anxiety in the mountain air.
Switzerland, like Brexiting Britain, is in a tricky position with the European Union over its stance on the free movement of people, and also like Britain its universities are under particular strain.
In 2014, after a referendum in which a slender majority voted in favour of limiting immigration (sound familiar?), the country was suspended from the EU’s €80 billion (£68 billion) Horizon 2020 programme.
The national awards scheme it created to fill the gap drew on international assessment panels, but as the head of one Swiss funding agency observes in our cover feature, it could not match the European Research Council and its highly competitive and prestigious grants.
The suspension from Horizon 2020 has been partially lifted after negotiations, and Switzerland has access to ERC funding for now. But it is still staring down the barrel of an EU-funded atom smasher, with a deadline looming for it to comply with free movement or face being excluded once again.
This is highly relevant to the UK, where free movement will be central to forthcoming Brexit negotiations. The uncertainty about whether Britain can maintain access to European funding has already led to reports of UK‑based researchers being politely excluded from projects by European colleagues. And attempts within the UK to reassure researchers, such as the Treasury’s pledge to guarantee post-Brexit funding for EU research projects, have done little to ease the uncertainty.
The frustration that many will feel about universities becoming collateral damage, or relegated to bargaining chips as governments wrangle over unrelated political issues, is summed up by Lino Guzzella, president of Switzerland’s most prestigious university, ETH Zurich – Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich: “Science and education…what more useful human activities are there than these two?” he asks in an interview with Times Higher Education this week. “And now exactly these two are penalised the most, the first victims of these political disputes. It is totally unacceptable.”
Guzzella also points out that many of the universities with the highest ERC grant success rates are based in either Switzerland or the UK, and suggests that if both countries were excluded then the whole system of European science would be devalued.
One possibility, he suggests, is that if the worst happens, and truly world-class universities such as his and the UK research elite find themselves out in the cold, they could work together “to come up with alternative [international] agreements” with a view to finding “an alternative [to the ERC] that is at least as attractive”.
It’s an attitude that university leaders may have no choice but to adopt, and it’s true that our universities have in many cases taken centuries to get where they are today – and have overcome hurdles worse than Brexit in the process. But on the question of what a better alternative to the ERC and Horizon 2020 would be in the current environment, who knows? As is the case almost across the board with Brexit, it is far easier to see what we stand to lose than what we might gain.