Swiss U-turn on Croatian immigrants halts its research and education talks with European Commission

Swiss science and education may take a hit after the country’s citizens narrowly approved immigration caps in a referendum on 9 February.

Though the immigration reform would take up to three years to implement, the vote had an immediate impact on the European Union’s newest member state, Croatia, which saw its free movement of people agreement with Switzerland put on hold.

In response to the Swiss move, the European Commission suspended talks on Switzerland’s participation in the EU’s flagship research and education programmes, namely the €80-billion Horizon 2020 and €14.7-billion Erasmus+ student exchange.

The suspension of talks is “extremely disappointing” and a “disaster for Swiss education and research,” Barbara Haering, Co-Chair of the European Research and Innovation Area Board told Science Business (19 February). “This is an unwelcome period of uncertainty.”

A major EU research initiative, the €1-billion Human Brain Project, based in Switzerland, is also likely to be affected.

Switzerland has had access to EU research funds as an associate partner, and its researchers have received some 318 prestigious European Research Council (ERC) grants (compared with Croatia’s 2) and received over €1.8 billion in research grants for around 600 projects since 2007.

The worry is that scientists based in Switzerland will not be able to use ERC grants at Swiss institutes or lead EU-funded research consortia.

“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,” François Baur, Deputy Head of International Relations at the Swiss Business Federation, told Science Business.

Geraldine Savary, a senior Swiss parliamentarian and socialist, was quoted by BBC News as saying that suspension of Swiss participation in Horizon 2020 would be a “catastrophe” for the country’s research, because Switzerland “receives much more today than it puts in”.

Given that most researchers in Switzerland are foreign – 75% of the ERC grant holders there, for example, are non-Swiss nationals – this may also make it more difficult for Swiss labs to recruit foreign talent.

“Without the ERC, we would lose a benchmark of excellence,” Haering told Science Business. “Coming to Switzerland may not be as attractive any more for researchers and professors.”

Dirk Helbing, a German sociologist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich, told Nature News (18 February): “People will think twice about whether they want to do science in a country where foreigners feel they might not be fully welcome.”

“We are in shock,” Jérôme Grosse, a spokesman for the EPFL told Nature News. “Voters just haven’t realized what dire consequences the referendum might have on Swiss–EU relations, and on research and innovation in our country.”

This blog post is based on reporting from Nature News, BBC News and Science Business.

Mićo Tatalović

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