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Why Scientific Research Needs A Strong Political Lobby

Earlier this month, Swiss voters caused a small political earthquake by accepting the Swiss People’s Party’s initiative (SVP) “Stop Mass Immigration”. The initiative demands the reintroduction of immigration quotas, thereby threatening the continuation of the bilateral treaties with the European Union and openly calling into question the concept of free movement of people. The long-term consequences of this ballot cannot yet be assessed, but for research and education the immediate outcomes seem already painful enough: The EU stopped negotiations on Erasmus+, a pan-European student exchange programme [1], and temporarily suspended Switzerland’s participation in the 8th European Framework Programme for Research and Innovation, Horizon 2020 [2]. Because of this, Swiss universities are not only at risk of losing access to European research funding, but might also face unnecessary hindrances with regard to country-spanning collaborations.
This should not come as a surprise, however. The EU repeatedly warned Switzerland that imposing restrictions on the free movement of people – one of the Union’s four fundamental freedoms – would not be taken lightly and might put ongoing negotiations in jeopardy. One can be of different opinions whether the EU’s political retaliations in the aftermath of the ballot were prudent, but it certainly cannot be said that Swiss voters were not being informed about the possible consequences of accepting the initiative.
Now, Switzerland in general and Swiss research in particular is caught between a rock and a hard place: On one hand, the voters’ will to curb immigration must be respected – anything else would erode trust in our democratic institutions and could eventually lead to even more extreme initiatives in the future. On the other hand, international exchange and collaboration are essential for science and must not be sacrificed. I do not dare to make any suggestions on how Switzerland might find its way out of this dire situation, but I trust in the skills of our diplomats to come up with suitable solutions that prevent the worst.

Meanwhile, we should think about what we could do ourselves to prevent future political decisions that whittle away at the core elements of scientific success in this country. To this end, a revision of many scientists’ and students’ attitudes towards political engagement might be indicated. In a recent radio report about the termination of Erasmus+, one of the interviewed students literally demanded that “students should not be directly afflicted by political decisions” [3]. And I am pretty sure that not few scientists take quite a similar stance when it comes to their interests. To me, this bears witness of a disturbing negligence towards politics and it is simply wishful thinking to believe that political decisions would stop at universities’ doorsteps. Politics will always have an influence on science and research, whether we like it or not.

So why was there no fierce opposition of universities, research institutions or individual scientists against the SVP’s initiative, even though the danger emanating from it was evident? For me, it is hard to understand that academia did not speak up in the run-up to the ballot – especially since the involvement of academic voices in the political discussion could actually have been enough to tip the scale: The initiative got accepted by a tiny margin of barely 20000 votes. Swaying the opinion of only 10000 voters would have been enough to make a difference. In such a situation, even the fiercest defender of rational choice theory would need to admit that every single vote matters.
Nevertheless, academia remained silent. Neither the State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation nor the Swiss Academy of Sciences nor the Swiss National Science Foundation nor the Rectors’ Conference of the Swiss Universities nor any other organisation in the area of science and education appeared to be willing to throw its whole political weight into the balance in order to convince Swiss voters to reject the initiative.

To be fair, they did publish an open letter two weeks before the ballot [4].  But this was hardly more than a feeble attempt to remind people of the general importance of international cooperation and it found very little resonance in the media.
The reluctance to openly engage in the political debate was often explained by emphasising that science should remain apolitical. I agree with that. Science indeed must not be politicised. But there’s a crucial difference between introducing politics into science and taking a stand for the interests of science in politics. By abstaining from any real argument prior to the ballot, those urging science to remain neutral actually achieved the exact opposite of what they wanted: The outcome of the vote sucked Swiss research directly into the maelstrom of domestic politics and Swiss-European diplomacy. For better or worse, the reintroduction of immigration quotas is going to make Swiss universities dependent on the whims of politicians and bureaucrats when it comes to hiring foreign researchers. At the same time, the EU is using Erasmus+ and Horizon2020 as pawns in the unfolding game of foreign politics chess. I can hardly think of any scenario in which science could have been more politicised than now.

Interestingly, research representatives’ polite restraint has vanished all of sudden, now that even the most hardened sceptics have to admit that Switzerland’s decision would not remain unanswered by the EU. Newspapers have been flooded with interviews of university rectors, research pundits and science officials, all of them bemoaning the terrible consequences of the vote’s outcome and demanding a sensible adaptation of the initiative. A perfectly reasonable reaction in my opinion, but why wait until the die is cast? Why not show the same level of activism when it could actually have helped to prevent the whole muddle in the first place?

This ballot was not the first one at which scientific freedoms were at stake; nor will it be the last for that matter. Between 1985 and 1993, Swiss citizens had to decide a total of three times whether they wanted to abolish animal experimenting on Swiss soil (fortunately, they didn’t).  Yet, the protection of the dignity of animals got incorporated into the constitution in 1992, making it harder for researchers to justify animal testing, as this institute had to make the painful experience a few years ago [5].
But it could have turned out much worse: In 1998, an initiative demanding the complete prohibition of the use of transgenic organisms was put to the vote. Its acceptance would have crippled biomedical research in this country beyond repair, leading to a mass exodus of scientific talent. Luckily, the initiative failed clearly – not least thanks to strident political protests from researchers.
However, seven years later a majority of the population was in favour of a GM crop-ban which was primarily targeted at agriculture, but also hindered scientific research considerably. Originally intended to last for only five years, the ban has already been extended twice and will (at least) be in effect until 2017.

There are three things we can learn from these referenda: Firstly, Swiss voters usually decide in the interest of science and research, being aware of the paramount importance of the knowledge industry in this otherwise resource-poor country. Only in very few cases citizens decided to restrict scientific freedom. This is their legitimate right and it is fruitless to complain about the outcome of a democratic decision, however painful it might be for the scientific community. It is much more important – and this is the second point I would like to emphasise – that one’s arguments are heard at the proper time, i.e. before the vote is cast.
Democracy can only work if there is a well-balanced and thorough public discussion prior to any ballot. During the lively debates on GMOs in 2005, the supporters of a ban used hair-raising and sometimes even plainly wrong arguments in the course of their referendum campaign. Scientists bravely tried to refute unjustified fears of biotechnology, but by then it was already too late. They had failed to build up trust in the years before, when biotechnology was still in its infancy and the public’s opinion was not yet influenced by the distorting propaganda of ardent biotech opponents. At least, the outcome of the ballot served as a wake-up call, showing that scientific lobbying must be done consistently and over the course of an extended time-period.
In this way, the engagement of researchers and science pundits in political debates can indeed make a difference, as could be seen from the clear verdict against the initiative demanding the abolition of transgenic research in Switzerland. This is the third and most important lesson that we can draw from this short excursion into Swiss politics: Scientists do have political influence – as long as they are willing to go out on the ground and inform society about their point of view.
Of course, not all researchers in this country are Swiss citizens and are allowed to vote. In fact, the majority of them are not [6]. Nevertheless, their voice matters! Let us not forget that academia generally enjoys tremendous support within the population. Scientists should thus go public more often in order to present their work – and themselves. The more our fellow citizens know about the importance and the relevance of the research being conducted at universities and other institutions, the more accessible they will be for arguments coming from the scientific community.

In the realm of animal experimentation, the Basel Declaration Society formed in 2010 is aiming into this direction. By pointing out the importance of animal testing for scientific and medical progress, they try to raise society’s awareness of this delicate topic [7]. Another organisation – “Forschung für Leben” – also pursues the important goal of providing the public with information about biomedical research [8]. These are great initiatives and together with the efforts of state-run organisations such as the Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences or the Swiss National Science Foundation they make a considerable contribution to boosting support for science and research.
Nevertheless, an overarching framework to promote the interests of science in politics has not been established yet – a careless omission in my opinion. Science needs a strong, reliable and trustworthy lobby in order to defend its principles; something that is particularly important in a semi-direct democracy like Switzerland. Here, it does not simply suffice to convince politicians and bureaucrats. One needs to be heard by the population as a whole.

Hence, a joint and decisive communication strategy of researchers, politicians and scientific lobbies could have convinced more people to reject the SVP’s populist initiative– and it might even have be sufficient to prevent the unpleasant situation Swiss research is currently stuck in.
The ballot’s outcome is not a complete disaster, but it certainly administered a detrimental blow to Switzerland’s longstanding relations with the European Union. The country is now forced to redefine and rethink its relationship with the EU – something neither political nor economic leaders dared to do in the course of the previous decade. It is going to be a journey into the unknown in which everybody needs to be pulling in the same direction in order to succeed. Thus, it is time for scientists to speak up and make themselves heard as well – among peers, in the political arena and – most importantly – in society. And there is not much time to waste: An even more radical initiative on immigration is waiting right around the corner and already foreshadows fierce political debates. When the time comes, science should not stay absent again. 
- S. Grüninger


1 comment:

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