Damage to science is softening free movement stance

Concern over the impact on participation in Europe’s prestigious Horizon 2020 research projects is shifting Swiss public opinion on free movement of workers from the European Union to a more pragmatic view, two years after the Swiss referendum “against mass immigration” in February 2014.

Switzerland, a non-EU country but a key beneficiary of EU research funding under its pre-referendum associate agreement with the EU, had to take a back seat after the referendum voted to control immigration with quotas set annually, and restrict free movement of people from Croatia which joined the EU in 2013.

But now four out of five Swiss respondents to an online and telephone opinion survey in April and May said the EU’s Horizon 2020 research programme was important for Swiss universities.

“Horizon 2020 is a strong driver for public acceptance of broadening freedom of movement” between the EU and Switzerland, according to a survey report released last week by social and political research agency GfS.Bern which surveyed some 2,500 people on behalf of the pharmaceutical sector organisation Interpharma.

Some 71% of respondents said Horizon 2020 was important for the country’s multinational corporations. Around 60% said Horizon 2020 was good for Swiss society in general.

Spokesperson for GfS.Bern, Lukas Golder, noted that a very small number – just 8% – were in the ‘don’t know’ category when asked whether Horizon 2020 was important. This was quite striking on an issue that most Swiss were unaware of at the time of the 2014 referendum.

More awareness now

Although universities had tried to communicate their views on immigration and the impact on research, analysts at the time said they had joined the debate too late, and were hardly heard until the last two weeks of the 2014 campaign.

“It was one of the mistakes of the 'No' [to immigration] side; they were too late and uncoordinated,” Golder said. “It was only in the first weeks after the shock of 2014 when many testimonies on Horizon 2020 and Erasmus showed that they were the most immediately affected.”

“Now people are quite aware this was not good for Switzerland,” said Golder.

“There was zero awareness of what would happen to Swiss science and innovation at the time of the referendum,” agreed Professor Michael Hengartner, president of the University of Zurich, and president of the university body Swissuniversities.

Instead the referendum campaign focused on the effect on Switzerland’s bilateral agreements with the EU and the free movement of people, Hengartner told University World News. Even those who proposed the 2014 referendum initiative said, ‘There will be no problem; we will convince the EU folks to simply accept this; we will find a way’, not realising that freedom of movement was one of the fundamental rights of the EU.

“Now people know that it is an important research programme,” he said, adding: “The issue of Horizon 2020 is not an academic discourse any more but a public discourse and a lot of people are saying we need to take a more pragmatic approach [on freedom of movement].”

“In fact, if the same referendum was held today, there would much less than 60% saying yes [to shut down immigration].”

New agreement with EU

The GfS.Bern survey comes as Swiss President Johann Schneider-Ammann told the Neue Zürcher Zeitung newspaper that the Swiss parliament and cabinet have to ratify the protocol accepting Croatia – which joined the EU in 2013 – before February 2017 when the current temporary agreement with the EU expires.

“We cannot afford not to play in the champions league any more and not be fully involved [with the Horizon 2020 research programme],” Schneider-Ammann said.

But, even with a change in the public’s view, time is tight for Switzerland to negotiate a new deal to allow full participation in EU research programme. The temporary partial association allows only limited Swiss participation in research and the EU’s Erasmus student mobility programme.

It is not just Horizon 2020, but a raft of some 20 bilateral agreements with the EU that could be on the line if agreement is not reached with the EU by February next year. In its post-2014 referendum negotiations with Switzerland “the EU made sure we could not cherry-pick. If one bilateral agreement falls, they all fall,” said Hengartner.

And the EU has stuck to its guns on free movement of workers as a condition. “Our failure to get anywhere in the past two years in our discussions with Brussels clearly helped Swiss people to realise that we would need to take a more pragmatic approach [on free movement],” Hengartner said. “And clearly it would be silly to risk our standing in science and innovation because of this discussion [on free movement].”

Time pressure

In March the Swiss government announced it had agreed with Brussels on a treaty extending free movement to Croatia, which had been on hold for two years.

In April the lower house approved the protocol. On 25 May the Swiss upper house or senate supported the ratification of the Croatia protocol but added a clause from the conservative Swiss People’s Party or SVP to make it conditional on a satisfactory solution being reached with the EU on the implementation of the rest of the 2014 referendum, notably free movement of EU citizens.

However, all negotiations with the EU have been put on hold because of the United Kingdom’s referendum to stay in or leave the EU, popularly known as Brexit, to be held on 23 June.

“We are under time pressure and that’s what worries us. Are we really going to find a solution that both sides agree to by February 2017?” said Hengartner.

Many commentators in Switzerland say another immigration referendum is likely, possibly before the end of 2016, that would reflect the change in public mood. However, it is far from clear how the immigration question would be framed.

“The problem is that the timeline for a public vote of that sort makes it impossible between now and February 2017,” Hengartner said. “Will our researchers be able to apply for ERC [European Research Council] grants for 2017? There is a lot of uncertainty.”

“We were not part of the ERC programme for a year and that had negative consequences, now we are a temporary associate again but people hesitate to move to Switzerland.”

Interim measures

To ensure continued participation in Erasmus+ after the referendum, the Swiss government stumped up CHF72 million (€65 million or US$73 million). The numbers of students taking part picked up after dropping in 2014, but have not returned to previous levels.

Under the current partial association agreement with the EU, researchers in Switzerland participate as equal partners in a part of Horizon 2020 called Excellent Science, which includes the prestigious ERC grants. Switzerland will contribute an estimated €400 million (CHF442 million) to these programmes until the end of 2016, according to EU figures.

“There has been damage to Swiss science but I don’t think it is irreversible,” Hengartner said.

After 2014 “Swiss participation in Horizon 2020 consortia was reduced by half. Our leadership or coordination of consortia has dropped by a factor of 10. People don’t trust the Swiss to coordinate because they simply don’t know what’s going to be the situation in two years. That makes it very, very difficult for our teams.”

Over the past two years the share of Swiss research projects in European programmes fell from 3.2% to 1.8%, according to the State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation. Swiss-coordinated projects are down from 3.9% of European research projects, to 0.3%.

Definitely third-party status with the EU, similar to the US or China, “is not a comfortable status to be”, Hengartner said.