European research system ‘cannot afford’ to lose Swiss and UK elite

ETH Zurich president says ERC alternative needed if pair exit EU research framework

September 1, 2016
Swans on river Limmat, Zurich, Switzerland
Source: iStock

The whole European research system would suffer if it no longer includes the UK and Switzerland, according to the president of ETH Zurich – Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich, one of the world's leading universities.

Lino Guzzella said an alternative international grants scheme would be needed were Swiss and UK universities to find themselves outside the European Research Council.

Professor Guzzella was speaking as part of a Times Higher Education feature published this week on the implications for Swiss universities of the nation’s crisis in relations with the European Union – prompted by a row over the issue of free movement of people – and on lessons from Switzerland for UK universities as they contemplate Brexit.

Switzerland, which is not an EU member state, previously took part in EU research programmes as an associated country.

But after a 2014 referendum in which Swiss voters narrowly backed limits on immigration from the EU, the EU has set a deadline of February 2017 for Switzerland to ratify a free movement deal with new member state Croatia or be kicked out of Horizon 2020, the bloc’s current research programme.

There is, as yet, no certainty over whether the UK will seek to secure associated country status in EU research programmes after Brexit.

THE reported last week that Alistair Jarvis, the Universities UK deputy chief executive leading its work on Brexit implications, believes it is a “distinct possibility” that the EU may seek to tie associated country status in research for the UK to free movement, as it has done with Switzerland. He also predicted it was “likely” that Theresa May’s government will seek to end current free movement arrangements.

Professor Guzzella, whose institution, at ninth in the 2015-16 THE World University Rankings, is continental Europe’s highest-placed university, highlighted the importance of the ERC, which is part of Horizon 2020.

He likened the prestigious grants awarded by the ERC – a highly competitive system rewarding excellent individual researchers – to “mini-Nobel prizes”.

In the EU’s most recent framework programme for research, Swiss and UK universities dominated the list of institutions where researchers had the highest success rates in the ERC.

If Switzerland is excluded, Professor Guzzella said, “we face significant losses, it’s clear. But those who remain in the ERC system will also be poorer.”

He added: “I’m convinced that the European science system cannot afford to for ever exclude excellent universities like Cambridge, Oxford, Imperial College, ETH Zurich and EPFL [the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne].

“Everybody will suffer. I will try to work with my colleagues to come up with alternative [international] agreements…The simple fact is we must find, if we’re really not in this [the ERC], an alternative that is at least as attractive.”

Professor Guzzella continued: “If the UK is also excluded, as we are threatened to be excluded, from being an associated country...then UK universities will have the same problem we have. They will be excluded from the ERC competition, they won’t get these mini-Nobel prizes. And then we will have to start a serious discussion about how to cope with that situation.

“There will be no easy fixes, no quick solutions. But on the other hand, we [at ETH] need something like that [the ERC competition]. If we are excluded from the ERC, we will have to talk about other options.”

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