Its great desire for independence notwithstanding, Switzerland is superbly integrated into the global pursuit of scientific research. The small Alpine country maintains some of Europe’s strongest research universities and hosts one of the world’s most outstanding research facilities, CERN — Europe’s particle-physics laboratory near Geneva. The nation has also taken on a lead role, financially and logistically, in the Human Brain Project, a €1-billion (US$1.4-billion) collaboration to simulate the human brain in a supercomputer.

The outcome of an ill-conceived referendum on 9 February against ‘mass immigration’ threatens to spoil Switzerland’s beautiful science landscape (see page 277). The motion was approved by a narrow majority despite opposition from the government, parliament and Swiss lobby groups, including those from science and industry.

The government now has three years to implement tighter immigration rules that could restrict how many foreign scientists can be employed at the country’s universities and research institutes. The European Union (EU) has already shown that it is not going to relax its fundamental principles in deference to Swiss xenophobia. Last weekend, Switzerland — an EU associate member — refused to sign an agreement that would extend the right to free movement within the EU to the bloc’s newest member, Croatia. The European Commission immediately suspended talks over Switzerland’s association in the EU’s €80-billion Horizon 2020 research programme. Clearly, the nation’s U-turn will not be without consequences.

Switzerland prides itself on a tradition that grants its citizens more far-reaching rights of co-determination than any other democracy. Its relatively small geographical size and population, high level of literacy and well-developed pragmatism all seem to favour that special form of government.

But direct democracy becomes problematic if it is driven by populism and irrational fears, such as those over unemployment and crime (Switzerland is, in fact, one of the safest countries in the world, and the current unemployment rate is barely 3.5%). Certainly, immigration there has increased over the past decade — but this is in large part because the economy and health system rely heavily on the services of foreign workers. Ironically, the initiative to ‘stop mass immigration’ got the highest level of support in rural areas, where there are relatively few foreigners. In cosmopolitan cities, such as Zurich, Basle and Geneva, a majority of voters rejected the initiative.

This is not the first time that an initiative by the Swiss people has clashed with the interests of science. In 1992, they voted to include the protection of the dignity of animals in the constitution, which made animal experiments much harder for scientists to justify. In 1998, an initiative aimed at banning the use of transgenic animals failed — narrowly — after scientists lobbied vociferously against it.

Switzerland cannot play fast and loose with international agreements on free movement.

Fortunately, the wording of the latest initiative offers enough leeway for the Swiss government to avert unintended harm to science. For example, the government is free to include provisions that would exempt foreign scientists — and possibly other groups of professionals, such as nurses — from the restrictions altogether. It needs to do so. Alternatively, it might assign future immigration quotas regionally, so that rural cantons could restrict immigration more than the urban regions that host universities and research institutes, and which voted against the measure.

The European Commission should stand firm on its decision to halt Horizon 2020 talks. It is unfortunate that science will be a casualty of a broader political fight but, in this case, principles matter. Switzerland cannot play fast and loose with international agreements such as those on the free movement of Europeans. If the country is to remain at the forefront of prestigious international research collaborations such as the Human Brain Project, it must make assurances that scientists can continue to participate on Swiss soil, and find a way to make it happen.

Switzerland’s regrettable course is a setback to Brussels’ vision of a pan-European Research Area where scientists, knowledge and ideas can move freely across borders. Indeed, it is a setback to any attempt to fight the populist rhetoric that immigration is a threat.

As the drama plays out between Bern and Brussels, European scientists and science organizations should seek to maintain, and where possible enhance, mutual collaboration with this exceptionally science-minded nation. But in this centenary year of the outbreak of the First World War — modern Europe’s original sin — Switzerland must be reminded that nationalism and exclusion are anachronisms of the worst kind.