Tax dispute brings US banking hassles for researchers

Researchers sponsored by the Swiss National Science Foundation, like those pictured here in Zurich, are having banking troubles when they go to the United States Keystone

Swiss researchers who work in the United States are having trouble keeping their bank accounts in Switzerland due to complications from long-standing tax evasion issues between the two countries.

This content was published on March 13, 2015 minutes

The Swiss National Science Foundation, which was created in the aftermath of the Second World War to invest in basic research, says new tax requirements are making it difficult to transfer money to Swiss researchers with US posts.

After a series of court cases and data leaks exposed how Swiss banks helped US and other foreign clients hide vast sums from being taxed, Switzerland shifted from its long-standing defence of financial secrecy.

But the US pressure on Swiss banks – and the resulting costs for all of the disclosure and administrative work in search of tax cheats – is taking a toll on cooperation on both sides of the Atlantic.

For the foundation, which now supports more than 8,500 researchers, the transatlantic tax dispute is a major headache because the US is by far the favourite destination for Swiss researchers headed abroad. It pays for more than 700 fellowships a year, roughly half for stays in the US.

The US also is the second-favourite country, after Germany, for Swiss researchers who are part of international collaborations, according to the foundation’s latest figures.

The Swiss National Science Foundation is obliged to pay into the home accounts of Swiss researchers who, in turn, have trouble accessing the money while in the United States, according to the foundation.

Daniel Sebastiani, who is in charge of managing the foundation fellowships, told Swiss public television,  RTS, that Swiss banks are reluctant to keep accounts open for Swiss researchers who go to work in the US.

For example, Switzerland’s biggest bank, UBS, will only service accounts that existed before a researcher left the country, while Vaud Cantonal Bank wants to close accounts while clients stay in the US, according to Sebastiani.

As a result, the foundation is trying to find makeshift solutions such as paying into Swiss accounts maintained by researchers’ parents, who can then wire the money to the US, or sending it directly to the labs where the researchers work. But in the long-term, Sebastiani said, the foundation would prefer that parliament find a more permanent solution.

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