Swiss research collaboration suffers

Nieuws | de redactie
14 maart 2014 | The Swiss law against ‘mass immigration’ has severe consequences for academia, especially since universities depend too much on unreliable, public funding, Dutch PhD-student at EPFL Lausanne Giel Op ‘t Veld writes. “However, the loss lies not in finance.”

A university should always concentrate the bulk of its effort on acquiring income from third parties rather than rely on public, first party funds. This is a little piece of wisdom I took from my former dean. In contrast to what one might think, it is the government and not the industry that is the most volatile source of academic income. Namely, despite being affected by economy, third party funds are project-based and are thus always proportional to your own effort to acquire them. Public first party funds, however, are affected by political climate, and academic institutions lack the leveraging power to really improve or even protect their position.

This volatility and lack of control is infectious. After the Swiss voted against free mobility for EU citizens in February, the EU decided to suspend all negotiations of Swiss participation in Horizon 2020. These European second party funding programs are project-based, so institutions could always rely on having their fate in their own hands by the quality of their proposals. Yet, these programs are not completely without political constraints, as Switzerland is now experiencing. My university, EPFL, received 54.5M CHF (45 million Euro) from European programs in 2013, and proposals for Horizon 2020 were due in the coming months. A third of EPFL’s competitive grant money comes from the EU and that well dried up overnight.

The political dilemma

On February 9, the Swiss voted to suspend EU directive 2004/38/EC, the directive of free mobility. The conservative right-wing party UDC called for this referendum, but chose the words ‘mass immigration’ instead. The debate is sensitive to say the least and sheds an awkward light on ancient prejudices of Swiss xenophobia.  With a 50.3% ‘oui’ and a 49.7% ‘non’, one should however realize that this referendum barely passed. Not surprisingly, the vote separated the Swiss-French from the Röstigraben, the more conservative rural areas of Swiss-Germany.

Surprisingly, possible consequences from the European Union were part of the debate leading up to the vote. The initiators of the referendum told the people not to worry; Brussels would never go this far. Afterwards, populist party UDC’s front man Christoph Blocher, a man described to me as the Swiss Geert Wilders, invited students who are impeded by the exclusion of Erasmus+ to email him, since quite frankly “he knew of no such cases”. The appeal motivated students to establish the satirical Helpline Blocher. Blocher, again, waived all criticism by saying the young socialists had too much time on their hands and that of the hundreds of e-mails he received, only a few described valid stories.

Every three months a referendum-Sunday

Many Swiss companies and even the Swiss government outspokenly opposed the referendum against mass immigration. It describes the strange tear in which the Swiss political system finds itself. It is neither fondue, nor chocolate that is the most typical Swiss thing: voting is. The Swiss have a referendum-day every three months (which might be the only exciting thing that ever happens on a Sunday) and all referenda are binding. Members of the Conseil fédéral, the highest political organ, are entitled to an opinion, but are expected to impartially implement any outcome of a referendum within three years’ time.

Perhaps a Swiss reading this wonders why I pay so much attention to the vote on mass immigration in a blog that started out discussing the exclusion from Erasmus+ and Horizon 2020. Many initiatives that tried to protest this exclusion struggled with the separation of the two debates. The Swiss value their direct democracy and regardless of prior opinions, the referendum has been held and its outcome should be respected. Constitution-wise, it is not even possible to not respect a referendum. Hence, the debate on the causality of the exclusion is irrelevant; the discussion should focus on how to solve it now, either at the European Union or the Conseil fédéral.

The proper academic response

So ask yourself the following, what are really the consequences of sudden exclusion of Horizon 2020? Preparations for the application phase of the new ERC grants were in full swing. Faculties were advised to keep submitting proposals in the hope of finding a swift solution. This is the essence of the exclusion: it is the hiring of professors that experiences a hiccup in continuity. Experienced researchers who had set their eyes on acquiring an ERC Starting Grant to make the step to full professor are the ones hit directly. For some researchers, these events may unluckily coincide with the end of their finite tenure track.

EPFL president Patrick Aebischer primarily regretted the impact on competiveness. In the EU’s 6th Framework Program (2003-2006) Switzerland invested 775.3M CHF (638 million Euro) and managed to secure 794.5M CHF(653 million Euro), a small yet positive net result. Exclusion from Horizon 2020 means –of course- also that Switzerland can simply invest its money in research by means of its own National Science Foundation, bypassing Europe and thus even saving on the extra overhead. The crux lies, though, in the missed opportunities of collaboration in the form of, for example, writing joint proposals with academic institutions in the EU. The crux also lies in marketing Switzerland as an attractive country for researchers to come to, with access to a large range of grants and collaborative opportunities. The loss lies not in finance.

As for students, Erasmus exchange programs are rather popular at ETHZ and EPFL. The student population is furious, yet several attempts to protest have yet to make a big impact. The Conseil fédéral has, however, already expressed the intent to aid students financially. Altruistically, the aid is intended to go both ways, helping both the Swiss students that wish to leave, as well as European students that seek to come to Switzerland.

A few days ago, also the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) has disclosed plans to aid its research community. The SNSF directly copies the aims, structure, budget and deadlines that would have otherwise been used by Horizon 2020. The Conseil fédéral is still a bit quiet on the actual budget, but it is evident that the Swiss are reallocating EU investments directly and fast into research so as to create a seamless transition. Yet, is seamless equivalent to the same? Surely, for young researchers acquiring a national grant can never boost their resume as much as a European one. Furthermore, ERC proposals were drafted for a certain audience. The SNSF is a different organization, with different expertise and focal points. It is hard to predict how this will influence the acceptance of proposals. Also, a national fix still lacks international collaboration and hence, the fix may be seamless, but it is not the same.

It struck me with a little surprise that the European Union valued their principles of free mobility to such an extent so as to go as far as giving up all the economic benefits of Swiss participation in research programs. To me, that illustrates that there is no way to separate the debate on mass immigration from the one on Erasmus+ and Horizon 2020 exclusion. Now that we have arrived here, there is no simply turning back. Many EU member states already struggle with anti-European sentiments and such sentiments would only be encouraged by the image of the free rider. Switzerland joining new initiatives like Horizon 2020, while ignoring the most fundamental principle of the EU, would go against both the values and stability of the EU.

Hence, any short-term solution for Erasmus+ and Horizon 2020 with the EU would only be a band-aid on the fracture that now runs through all agreements with Switzerland. To find a short-term fix is the responsibility of the Conseil fédéral and one cannot but admire how quick the Swiss government already responded. A permanent solution, however, requires a more fundamental debate on the relationship between Switzerland and the EU. Such a discussion requires time. It cannot even begin before Switzerland makes concrete laws out of the referendum’s outcome, a task that thus needs to be completed within three years. As for me, I’d just better make sure I finish my PhD before my professor’s ERC grant runs out.

Giel Op ’t Veld, PhD-student at EPFL Lausanne

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