13 September 2016

Will Switzerland soon be researching alone?

"Scientists' fear is growing," headlined the NZZ recently. As a consequence of its adoption of the mass immigration initiative the EU has shut Switzerland out of the European research cooperation Horizon 2020 and the student exchange program Erasmus +. As a result, research and innovation in Switzerland is in danger of being sidelined. Numerous Swiss research projects are threatened with failure, and the attraction of Switzerland for talented foreign students could thus disappear. Should Switzerland not fully accept the Croatia Protocol by February 2017 they will entirely cease to be part of the programs and will only be considered as a third country.

Exchange Programs
The loss of the Erasmus agreements presented the universities with a major challenge. Within a very short time period new bilateral agreements had to be negotiated with more than 200 European universities, otherwise many students would not have been able to realize their overseas plans. To ensure mobility, as part of the newly established Swiss-European Mobility Programme (SEMP), Switzerland must dig deep into its pockets. Under Erasmus + Swiss Universities received grants from Brussels for their exchange students and used this to pay their tuition costs. Now Switzerland funds a part of the costs for both the Swiss exchange students and the foreign guest students. According to statements from the universities most agreements could be secured.

Horizon 2020
Switzerland has greatly benefited from the Horizon 2020 research collaboration. It received more than 10% of the amount paid in, Swiss institutions being considered as very popular research partners. However, pending the adoption of the Croatia Protocol, the EU is denying Switzerland full association. The current partial-association at least allows Swiss researchers access to the activities of the so-called first pillar "Excellent Science" (about 32% of the total budget). For all other branches of research (inter alia food, agriculture, energy, environment, etc.) Switzerland is considered a third country and therefore receives no financial advantage from Horizon 2020.  However, the partial-association also reduces the attractiveness of cooperation with Switzerland, because "their involvement in numerous projects would be considered a risk," says the statement of the Federal Council. Since the loss of funding from the European Horizon 2020, the federal government and the Swiss National Fund are securing individual projects through their financial support. However, the current situation of Swiss researchers remains uncertain until a final agreement is reached between Switzerland and the EU.

Outlook
In collaboration with the federal government, the university institutions were able to mitigate the effects of the surprise termination of their membership of Erasmus + and Horizon 2020 through additional costs. With respect to the exchange programs the SEMP provides a workable solution. Concerning participation in the important Horizon 2020, the Federal Council are confident as they are recommending researchers to apply for funding on the premiss that full association will be achieved. However, an agreement with the EU, in the current political environment, is not yet in sight. Rather, Switzerland is reviewing alternative programs, e.g., with British researchers, who are also facing uncertainty in the aftermath of Brexit.

Author: Dan Pruschy

Photo: Martin Stübler/Wikimedia Commons

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