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14 Dec 2017

Science|Business article: Switzerland's exile from EU research is a cautionary tale for the UK

article by Science|Business

Full membership is restored, but the Swiss are still counting the cost of being outside the EU research fold during the 2014 - 2016 immigration dispute. “If you’ve been there, you know how much it hurts,” says one scientist affected by the ban

Switzerland is being looked to as one of the models to emulate for those who look forward to Brexit. The country appears to enjoy the best of both worlds: self-determination, along with many of the benefits of EU membership, including access to the EU’s €77-billion Horizon 2020 research programme.

But this “cake-and-eat-it” illusion shattered in February 2014, when Swiss voters narrowly backed quotas on immigration from neighbouring EU countries, in violation of the EU’s principle of free movement of people. As a result, Switzerland was banned from EU research competitions.

Given their own recent wilderness years, Swiss scientists are full of sympathy for UK counterparts, whose future participation in EU research is in jeopardy. “We know their situation: we’ve been there. And if you’ve been there, you know how much it hurts,” said Detlef Günther, vice president of research and corporate relations at ETH Zurich.

The exile of Switzerland from EU research competitions, lasting until late 2016, is an expensive and uninspiring parable of how science can become painfully enmeshed in Brussels politics, and an obvious warning for Brexit Britain.

For the UK, as for Switzerland, the main threat is not a cut in funding but a loss of reputation and standing. “The money would always be there in any case,” said Roland Siegwart, professor of autonomous systems at ETH Zurich. “What’s more important is the recognition you get from winning the top EU grants.”

Swiss researchers were initially completely locked out of Horizon 2020, including the prestigious European Research Council (ERC). While Switzerland ranked ninth in the EU funding charts between 2007 and 2013, it fell back to fourteenth place in the first year and a half of Horizon 2020.

A feeling of isolationism quickly set in among Swiss researchers. “The whole thing created a lack of assurance; we saw a big decrease in the amount of projects led by our researchers,” said Andreas Mortensen, a professor of materials science and vice-president for research at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL).

The situation eased from September 2014 when Switzerland gained temporary re-entry, with the Swiss government providing a big chunk of the funding. But for almost two-thirds of the Horizon 2020 programme, Switzerland was a “third country” – treated like the US, Japan or Russia.

Switzerland’s time in the research wilderness has left a hangover that has not fully lifted, said Mortensen. “It will be at least a half a decade for all the damage to wither away.” He estimates that EPFL lost out on as many as eight ERC starting and consolidator grants, for young and mid-career researchers, during the uncertain period. “That has left an impact on our standing in global league tables,” Mortensen said. Recruiting foreign talent became more difficult too.

To read the full Science|Business article, click here.

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