BRUSSELS—Starting today, scientists in Switzerland will again be able to apply for some research funds from the European Union's Horizon 2020 program—including coveted grants from the European Research Council (ERC). Both sides reached a short-term deal undoing restrictions imposed on Swiss scientists after a referendum to curb mass immigration back in February.
Scientists were the first to feel the cooling of the relationships between the European Union and the affluent country it surrounds after the referendum. The union expects Switzerland to include Croatia, which entered the union last year, in its agreement on the free movement of persons. But following the vote, Switzerland said it couldn't sign the Croatian deal. As a result, Switzerland lost its privileged status as an associated country to Horizon 2020, the bloc's research funding program.
After several months of negotiations, the commission has now agreed to give Switzerland its associated country status back for the so-called first pillar of Horizon 2020, worth €24.4 billion for 7 years. This includes individual grants from ERC and the Marie Curie fellowships for science training, staff exchanges and mobility, as well as the Future and Emerging Technologies scheme, which is showering two 10-year projects with up to €1 billion each. (One of them, a controversial plan to model the human brain, is the brainchild of Henry Markram, a researcher at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne.)
But Swiss researchers will still be considered third-country applicants for most of Horizon 2020, including its €29.7 billion third pillar, which funds collaborative research projects to solve “societal challenges.” The deal doesn't affect restrictions on the education program Erasmus+ either.
Researchers in Switzerland heaved a cautious sigh of relief at the news. But Dominique Arlettaz, vice president of the Rectors' Conference of the Swiss Universities, pointed out that the deal is only partial and temporary. “We don't know at all what will happen after . You know that research is done with a long-term vision so it's difficult not to know what will happen from 2017 on,” Arlettaz told the French-speaking public radio station La 1ère on Saturday.
The temporary solution is beneficial for both sides, a commission representative tells ScienceInsider. “We have an interest in having the best participants in the program, and Swiss participants are certainly world-class,” he says. But in the long run, the immigration issue remains a flash point: If it doesn't ratify the Croatia protocol before 9 February 2017—3 years after the immigration referendum—Switzerland will lose its associated status again. If it does sign the protocol, however, it will regain its associated country status for the whole of Horizon 2020.
The agreement will be signed formally in December, but will apply retroactively from today onward. According to an E.U. source, “all member states stand behind this deal, including Croatia.”