New leader hopes to take Swiss universities through wilderness

New umbrella body president must safeguard world-leading institutions through a difficult time; luckily, the Neapolitan physicist is ready for a fight

February 10, 2023
Source: Guillaume Perret

Academics in Switzerland were excluded from the European Union’s research funding programmes after the federal government’s 2021 decision to walk away from wider cooperation talks. With reputations for reliability already tainted by the country’s brief 2014 exclusion from Horizon 2020, returning to smoother continental collaboration sits top of the to-do list for many.

Among them is Luciana Vaccaro, who became president of the umbrella body Swissuniversities at the start of February. “It is not the easiest time to take this position, but you can never choose,” she told Times Higher Education. “My role is to keep the light on this need and never give up communicating about [the] importance” of EU research ties, she said.

Swiss diplomats admit progress in ongoing talks has been sluggish, with a wider agreement that would allow Horizon association nowhere in sight. It is a bleak outlook, but for Professor Vaccaro, the case for higher education is made more easily thanks to Swiss politicians’ longstanding appreciation for it. “We are one of the countries that is investing the most in education and research,” she said, citing Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development figures, which show the Swiss spend more than double the average for rich countries per post-secondary student.

But even the world’s bankers are not immune to inflation, with the Swiss parliament agreeing it will overspend by SFr4.8 billion (£4.3 billion) in 2023, largely due to energy bailouts. For Professor Vaccaro, future higher education cuts are not impossible. “We will fight before this happens. We have our lobby system, and we will stress the fact that this is a long-term investment for the country.”

She praised plans to set up a Horizon fund to protect the budget earmarked for the EU programme, which have the backing of the Swiss parliament’s science committee and are slated to become law later this year. The government has also channelled extra money into the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) and the innovation agency Innosuisse. “This is the most urgent thing to do, and what we are doing,” she said, referring to shorter-term funding, such as the creation of national calls designed to substitute EU grants.

The SNSF was bowled over by applications to its first copycat call of the European Research Council’s advanced grants in December 2021. “We cannot compensate for the prestige of ERC, but still we build the same funding scheme in order to give the possibility to develop the labs, innovation and start-ups within our universities,” Professor Vaccaro said.

It was an EU project that first prompted Professor Vaccaro to consider leadership: “That is when I started to think that I might be more talented as a university manager than as a physicist.” At the University of Applied Sciences and Arts of Western Switzerland (HES-SO), the institution she has led for the past nine years, the proportion of staff who are joining EU projects for the first time has dropped from 30 to 10 per cent. “There is not the possibility any more for a young Luciana to be a coordinator of a European project in Switzerland,” she lamented.

“We will see in the long run, in 10 to 15 years, whether somehow we have become less attractive for researchers that are Europeans, who have perhaps been in the US and want to come back,” she said, citing anecdotes from colleagues and noting the impossibility of quantifying the appointments that fall through as a result of EU exclusion.

Many of Switzerland’s charms will remain, whatever happens with its neighbours. Professor Vaccaro’s attraction to the country began at 10 years old, when she first visited the European Organization for Nuclear Research (Cern) in Geneva – “the Holy Land for physicists”. “It was like being on a space vessel. The first time I went down in the accelerator tunnel it was like being on Mars. For a kid, it was like dreaming,” she recalled.

Nowadays she spends most of her time on trains, visiting HES-SO’s 28 campuses, which are spread across seven administrative regions. “Seven cantons in Switzerland means seven cultures. We are like a little Switzerland.” She is the first rector of a university of applied sciences to lead Swissuniversities.

Just over half of Swiss women study at university, but they make up only 22 per cent of professors. “When I see that we miss 30 per cent of people that could be with us, we miss 30 per cent of talents,” she said, adding that gender equality was a “top priority” for her presidency and that tenure-track programmes were a “very valid tool” for keeping women in academia. Coming to Switzerland in 1996 she was “shocked” to find young women with an interest in science got much more encouragement back home in Italy.

A prodigious mathematician, she was raised by her father, an academic engineer, but still had to overcome misconceptions. “People in the world think we are lazy, but Neapolitans are very hard workers. A little bit chaotic, I must say, but people work hard.”

Plenty of hard work will be needed in the battle for Switzerland to rejoin EU research, but Professor Vaccaro hoped that it would be worthwhile. “Even if we associate to Horizon Europe on the very last day, this is important,” she said.


Print headline: Swiss HE chief eyes route out of the cold

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