However, Spaldin is quick to point out that these grants are not just about the money. And even if Switzerland’s State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation (SERI) can replace the funds that normally come from Brussels, the situation is still fraught with major disadvantages. “It’s a bit like telling the Swiss Olympic Team that they can only compete in national competitions instead of the Tokyo Olympics. They might end up winning some prize money, but they won’t be competing with the best,” she explains. “Researchers who don’t get a chance to apply for the most prestigious scholarships and projects will think twice about coming to Switzerland or could even leave.”
Huge career disadvantages
Like many other postdoctoral researchers, Stefano Maffei’s main goal is to become a professor. After research visits to the UK and USA, the 34-year-old geophysicist has been back at ETH Zurich for just under three months. Maffei had applied for a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Postdoctoral Fellowship last year, but fell a few points short of succeeding. The EU Commission recommended that he modify a few things on his application and resubmit it – so this year should have been his chance.
Now, however, Maffei is no longer eligible. To resubmit his application, he would have to transfer to a university in the EU or an associated third country. For the next two years, the Italian-Swiss dual national will continue to be financed by ETH funds, but his future plans beyond that are uncertain. He could end up leaving Switzerland, or abandoning a career in science altogether.
Maffei’s biggest worry, however, is not the money – successful researchers like him have access to alternative, national funding schemes. What weighs more heavily on his mind is that he will be less competitive in the medium to long term. “A Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowship would have been an ideal stepping stone to a professorship,” he says. “It represents a concrete achievement that makes all the difference in appointment processes.”
Less ETH influence
However, it is by no means only young researchers who are facing disadvantages: leading researchers such as ETH professor Domenico Giardini are also set to be heavily affected. The earthquake specialist has had an almost unparalleled influence on the face of European seismology: under his leadership, ETH has coordinated infrastructure projects worth millions in order to assess the risk of earthquakes more successfully. Also a Swiss-Italian dual national, Giardini explains the situation as follows: “The universities that coordinate large projects across the whole of Europe have a major say in the future of seismological research.”
For universities to gain access to the latest data and attract the best minds, they have to play a leading role in groundbreaking projects like these. “If we lose this status,” warns Giardini, “we also risk losing our top position in the rankings over the medium term.” And Giardini is a person who knows what he is talking about – it is, after all, mainly thanks to him and his colleagues at the Department of Earth Sciences that ETH is the world leader in the field of geophysics, ahead of Oxford, Harvard and MIT.