Higher ed, research officials reject immigration initiative

Researchers want Switzerland and the EU to be going in the same direction, collaboration-wise © Keystone / Gaetan Bally

Curbing free movement would be harmful to education and research in Switzerland, the country’s top research officials have argued. The country relies on attracting top scientists and on international collaboration to tackle crises like the Covid-19 pandemic.

This content was published on August 27, 2020 - 12:11

Representatives from five major university and research bodies were speaking ahead of a nationwide vote, set for September 27, on a Swiss People’s Party-backed initiative to scrap the free movement of people accord with the European Union.

The vote is seen as crucial for future relations between non-EU member Switzerland and the 27-nation bloc – and for Swiss education, research and innovation (ERI), as speakers at a joint press conference in Bern on Thursday pointed out.

Switzerland needs to be able to attract the best researchers as “these are the people who are busy developing vaccines against the coronavirus, or inventing equipment to enable people with spinal injuries to climb stairs again”

It would be hard to bring in talented people and good ideas from the EU without the free movement accord, officials said in a joint statement.

Coronavirus and collaboration

Yves Flückiger, head of the umbrella body swissuniversities, and rector of the University of Geneva, gave the example of Isabella Eckerle, who leads the Centre for Emerging Viral Diseases at the University of Geneva. Her laboratory developed one of the first diagnostic tests for the coronavirus in January 2020 and, in the first phase of the pandemic, was in charge of the confirmation tests for Swiss samples.

Eckerle is a German national and her interest in coronaviruses dates back to 2011, when she worked in a top lab in Berlin. “The exchange between these two labs is the reason why the diagnostic tests were developed in Switzerland,” Flückiger explained.

Around half of partnerships between research groups are formed within Europe, he added.

Free movement also allows Swiss researchers to work abroad and bring their know-how back to Switzerland.

European research programmes at risk

The initiative also jeopardises Swiss participation in EU research programmes.

“Let’s learn from the consequences of the mass immigration initiative of 2014,” said Michael Hengartner, president of the ETH Board, which oversees the top-ranked federal technology institute ETH Zurich and its sister institution in Lausanne, the EPFL.

After the controversial 2014 vote to re-introduce immigration quotas for EU citizens, Switzerland was effectively barred from EU research programmes, including the key Horizon 2020. This ban was later partially loosened (Switzerland is still excluded from the Erasmus education exchange programme, although it can now fully participate in Horizon 2020). This meant fewer international projects and less funding from the EU for Swiss researchers.

“Great damage was done to Swiss science, and the repercussions are still being felt today,” Hengartner stated.

Angelika Kalt, director of the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF,) added that Switzerland needed to exert an influence on scientific progress. “Switzerland has to be part of these programmes to find solutions to big societal problems like climate change,” she said.

In addition, the post-Covid era will force everyone to rethink mobility and the relationships with Switzerland’s neighbours, said swissuniversities’ Flückiger.

“Our neighbour, our natural partner, is Europe,” he said.

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