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A Trump-Era Brain Drain? U.S.-Based Scientists Eye Switzerland

Foreign scientists working in the U.S. are seeking job prospects in Switzerland as they contemplate leaving a country under an unfriendly administration. For one Swiss agency, that's not necessarily good news.

Inside Lausanne's EPFL
Inside Lausanne's EPFL
Ram Etwareea

LAUSANNE — Many non-American scientists working in U.S. companies and agencies are eyeing job openings at a top research facility in Switzerland. This is in anticipation of a clampdown on foreigners, particularly those from Muslim countries, under the new Republican administration. For the Lausanne Federal Polytechnic School (EPFL), the surge in interest is unexpected, and unnerving. There have been "informal contacts between researchers," says Madeleine von Holzen, an EPFL spokeswoman.

Until the recent travel ban announced by the administration of President Donald J. Trump, the "brain drain" went the other way. A 2015 report published by the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics showed that the number of foreign engineers and scientists working in the U.S. rose from 3.6 million (16% of scientists) in 2003 to 5.5 million in 2013. Indians accounted for the largest group, followed by Filipinos and Chinese.

Concern at the top

This is not the first time foreign scientists have been inclined to quietly leave the U.S. It also happened under President George W. Bush after the 9/11 attacks when an environment of general suspicion abounded.

Is the arrival of top scientists from the U.S. good for Switzerland? "We're rather worried by the situation destabilizing scientific circles in the United States," says EPFL's president, Martin Vetterli. "Science won't be the winner in the medium to long term."

EPFL already has about 200 students and professors from Muslim-majority countries, which are now on the travel blacklist. They must now rethink projects involving travel to the United States.

Beyond Trump's immigration order, Vetterli says "there is an unhealthy atmosphere taking hold in the United States." He adds that one sign of this is Trump's choice of environment chief — a climate skeptic who defends the notion of "alternative facts."

"In science there is only one truth," Vetterli says.

Finding work with EPFL will not be easy, he says. Candidates must wait for vacancies and undergo recruitment procedures that "can easily last a year."

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