BERN Switzerland’s scientific community heaved a collective sigh of relief following measures from Bern to temporarily fund some projects.
The panic has not completely died down however, since the measures proposed by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) are transitional, pending resolution of the problem posed by the cutoff of EU funding. After the 9 February vote against mass immigration, the EU halted Swiss participation in the European Horizon 2020 scientific projects.
The SNSF’s offer of temporary funding resulted in nearly 150 applications from scientists at the University of Geneva, Zurich’s Institute of Technology (ETH) and EPFL in Lausanne. The concern is that it may become more difficult for Swiss scientists to participate in European research projects if they are no longer eligible for common funding through the important European Research Council (ERC) grants.
Roland Siegwart, professor of robotics at Zurich’s prestigious ETH, believes the main damage to Switzerland is not financial but rather to its reputation as a reliable and important partner in scientific research. “It is not as catastrophic as some people think, although painful and the wrong move,” said Siegwart, who is also vice-president of Research and Corporate Relations at ETH. “We had controlled immigration from Europe before 2002 but people are nevertheless worried and may decide not to come here because of this uncertainty.”
Much has been reported about the important physics experiments going on at the CERN nuclear research centre outside Geneva. Less is known about other important projects such as the Human Brain Project, piloted by EPFL in Lausanne and relocated to Geneva at the beginning of this year. There is also a myriad of other significant research projects in medicine, pharmaceutics, robotics and nuclear fusion – not to mention ecological and energy projects from solar to hydroelectric and biotechnology.
Swiss universities historically get about two thirds of their researchers from abroad and most of those have come from Europe since Switzerland signed up to the EU Free Movement of Persons Agreement in 2002. The question is, will Switzerland turn towards non-European scientists to fill the gap? “It may be that Switzerland is now free to attract more scientists from non-European countries such as the US or India,” said Siegwart. “For them the situation might actually improve because until now it was much easier to get people from Europe. It will now be equal for everyone.”
Perhaps with this in mind, minister for economy Johann Schneider-Ammann flew to Brazil in early April to inaugurate a new office for the Swiss science and education network known as Swissnex. This is a public and privately funded network to connect Swiss scientists with research projects around the world. The Rio office will be the sixth. The first office opened in Boston in 2000, followed by San Francisco, Singapore, Shanghai and Bangalore. Notable by its absence is any office in Europe.
Nevertheless, most Swiss scientists don’t believe that non-Europeans will fill the gap. This is partly because it is more difficult to have common funding mechanisms with individual countries. It is also because the ERC not only provides funding for basic research, but also offers awards for outstanding research, an area in which Switzerland has excelled. According to Siegwart this cannot be replaced and he is confident the government will find reasonable solutions. “Most Swiss know their government usually finds a way out of these problems but foreigners don’t know that and are understandably anxious.”