Swiss universities fear that a forthcoming referendum could result in their being barred from bidding for European Union research funding, in a case that highlights the vulnerability of countries that associate to the bloc’s framework programmes.
The “self-determination initiative”, promoted by the right-wing Swiss People’s Party, aims to ensure that Swiss law takes precedence over international law and will be put to a public vote on 25 November. The proposal, if passed, could undermine international treaties signed by Switzerland and force the country to ignore rulings by the European Court of Human Rights.
University leaders fear that in these circumstances, their researchers would be barred from taking part in EU programmes including the Horizon 2020 funding scheme and its successor Horizon Europe, bringing back uncomfortable memories of a two-year period after a 2014 vote in favour of restricting immigration, when Swiss participation was restricted. The country was fully readmitted only after agreeing a “light” implementation of the referendum verdict.
The case of Switzerland, which is not a member of the EU but signs up to free movement of people and is part of the single market under a series of bilateral deals, has been seen by some as a potential model for UK participation in EU research programmes post-Brexit.
However, its experience shows how curtailment of research funding offers Brussels a powerful lever when wider disputes flare up, with universities getting caught in the crossfire. In contrast, while MEPs have roundly criticised Hungary for its infringements of academic freedom, the country’s EU membership means that its access to research funding remains unconstrained.
Jan Palmowski, secretary general of the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities, said that Switzerland’s exit from EU research programmes would be a “disaster – for Switzerland but also for the EU”.
“Exclusion from Horizon 2020 again would be a catastrophe for Switzerland’s flagship universities,” he said. “But citizens from across Europe would also pay the price, because the knowledge Swiss researchers generate with the support of Horizon 2020 benefits us all.”
Professor Palmowski emphasised that Swiss research prowess was closely entwined with that of its European neighbours: for every five Swiss employees at ETH Zurich, the country’s top-ranked university, there are four from the EU, he said. As of 2017, 275 of 420 of the institution’s full professors are international, including 222 from EU countries, he added.
“Academics at Swiss universities are among the most successful in obtaining funding from the European Research Council [but] Swiss universities were badly hit by the [previous] exclusion from Horizon 2020 between 2014 and 2017: it meant that the proportion of collaborative projects coordinated by Swiss universities plummeted to almost zero,” Professor Palmowski added.
Michael Hengartner, president of the University of Zurich and head of the Swiss rectors’ conference, known as Swissuniversities, said that although it was “too early” to predict whether or not the self-determination initiative would win majority backing, such a move would be sure to have negative consequences.
“Swiss scientists collaborate with partners all around the world, and particularly intensively with colleagues in the EU,” he said. “Association to the research framework programmes facilitates these collaborations and thus strengthens science both in EU member states and in Switzerland.”
Loss of access to Horizon 2020 could weaken research collaborations, lead collaborators to drop out of projects and, thus, weaken the competitiveness of both Swiss and EU research institutions “at a time where international competition, particularly from Asian countries, is strengthening”, Professor Hengartner added.
“Any development that reduces the competitiveness of Swiss research institutions reduces their attractiveness to top scientists, Swiss and foreigners alike, independently of whether they are already in Switzerland or considering moving there,” he said. “I would not expect an exodus, but a reduced ability to attract new top talent would certainly weaken Swiss science in the medium to long term.”
Swiss universities have been among the top performers in the EU’s funding programmes, securing a higher proportion of European Research Council grants per capita than any other country. Only the UK, Germany, France and the Netherlands have secured more grants in total.
But Martin Vetterli, president of École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne and a former head of the Swiss National Science Foundation, said that a six-month exclusion from ERC bidding after the 2014 referendum had had a damaging impact and that another embargo could be even worse.
“We had a bunch of researchers who could not answer the calls of the ERC [because] they had deadlines during that six-month period,” he recalled. “Of course it was only six months, but when it started we had no idea how long it would last. I think that is what makes us nervous now.”
Despite the parallels with the UK’s future, sector experts emphasised the uniqueness of the Swiss relationship with the EU. Thomas Jørgensen, senior policy coordinator at the European University Association, argued that the UK’s decision to leave the EU puts it “almost in a worse position than Switzerland in terms of negotiation”. “In all likelihood, Switzerland will have to draw up an alternative agreement with the EU, as it has done in the past.”
Professor Vetterli agreed that Switzerland stood in better stead than the UK post-Brexit. “In Switzerland, what we have with the EU is an unconsummated union – a potential that is not quite realised,” he said. “Brexit is a divorce, and a divorce is much more emotional.
“We have previously contracted with the EU, and relatively successfully, so, for both sides, that’s the message that is important. Swiss are very happy to be in the Europe of science, and I think Europe is happy to have Swiss science participate, so it would be quite sad to lose it.”