BRUSSELS—Swiss scientists could be the first to feel the effects of a referendum in which Swiss people agreed to cap the entry of migrants into their country . As an indirect consequence of the vote, held on 9 February, the European Union has postponed negotiations to include Switzerland as an associated country to Horizon 2020, the bloc's research and innovation program, and to the higher education program Erasmus+, which both run from 2014 through 2020.
Switzerland has been an associated country to the European Union's research programs since 2004; this means that Swiss researchers are eligible for funding just like scientists from an E.U. member state. Both sides assumed that the agreement would soon be renewed and would apply retrospectively from the beginning of Horizon 2020 on 1 January.
But the immigration referendum got in the way—indirectly. The European Union expects Switzerland to include Croatia, which entered the union last year, in its agreement on the free movement of persons. But after the vote, Switzerland informed Croatia that it would not be able to sign the deal in its current form.
The European Commission had warned that not honoring the Croatian deal would endanger Switzerland's association agreements for Horizon 2020 and Erasmus+. “A round of negotiations was due to take place last Wednesday [12 February] but was postponed,” a commission official tells ScienceInsider in an e-mail, adding that the commission is waiting for more “clarity” from Switzerland, and that time is running short. “The window of opportunity in which to reach an association agreement is small and closing fast (we are talking about days, not weeks),” the official says. “Even if we got an agreement tomorrow we would still need to jump through a lot of procedural hoops before it could provisionally enter into force.”
While Switzerland's status remains uncertain, the Swiss State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation has urged scientists to “continue to respond to and actively participate in open calls for Horizon 2020.” In a note published today , the secretariat says that it is “working with the EU on a solution” that would enable Swiss scientists to take part in the program anyway by September 2014, when the first Horizon 2020 contracts are to be signed.
If Switzerland lost its associated country status, it would be considered as a third country. To prepare for this possibility, “[p]otential Swiss project partners should make sure that the proposal respects the required minimum number of consortium partners from 3 institutions from 3 different EU member states or associated states (not including Switzerland),” the secretariat recommends.
Under a third country scenario, Swiss institutions would not be able to host grantees from the prestigious European Research Council (ERC). Dominique Arlettaz, vice president of the Rectors' Conference of the Swiss Universities, said this would be a great loss for the country's science. “It's a bit as if our skiers were told: 'You ski very well but you won't be able to go to the Olympic Games […] to measure against skiers from all over the world',” Arlettaz told French-speaking public radio station La 1ère today.
The delays do not affect scientists who receive money from Horizon 2020's predecessor, the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7): These projects will be funded until they end. The Human Brain Project—a giant 10-year project in which Swiss scientists play an important role —will also be funded until the spring of 2016 from FP7's budget, the secretariat said.
To become associated with FP7, Switzerland paid about €1.6 billion into the E.U. budget, according to the commission. At the last count in November 2013, Swiss researchers took part in about 3000 projects under FP7, receiving €1.8 billion from the European Union. These figures include about €500 million going to more than 300 ERC grantees.