A year ago Switzerland was ignominiously ejected from the EU’s major research funding programmes. As a result, scientists in Switzerland are warning that R&D is suffering with some fearing that the country’s chance of re-joining these programmes is already fading.
While not an EU member, Switzerland had previously participated in research programmes like Horizon 2020 as an ‘associated’ country. But due to political tensions between the European commission and the Swiss government over a collapsed trade deal Switzerland was refused associated status for the latest cycle of funding programmes. This includes Horizon Europe, Euratom and Digital Europe, all of which launched in 2021 and are scheduled to run until 2027.
The Swiss government still maintains that it wants to negotiate association to the EU’s research programmes, but so far little progress has been made. Meanwhile, the situation severely limits the ways in which Swiss scientists can fund their research and collaborate with international colleagues. While Swiss researchers can still collaborate with EU partners to a degree, they can no longer lead Horizon-supported projects.
In May, Swissuniversities, a body that represents Switzerland’s higher education institutions, warned that its members had been hit hard by the situation. ‘Projects can no longer be realised as planned, Swiss researchers are losing project leaders, and projects and researchers are relocating to EU countries. As a result, the budgets of the universities will be short of millions,’ the organisation said in a statement.
While the Swiss government has offered replacement funding mechanisms through its department for research and innovation (Seri) and the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF), many observers note that it is impossible to fully replicate the opportunities offered by international programmes like the €95.5 billion (£81 billion) Horizon Europe.
Quality at risk
Christian Leumann, a bioorganic chemist and rector at the University of Bern, worries that exclusion from Horizon funding calls could lead to a drop in the quality of research proposals. ‘It’s not the same thing: [now] we’re competitors within one country, we are not competitors within the largest scientific framework programme,’ he says. ‘So my doubt, at the end of the day, is the question of excellence – even though the SNSF says it wants to have more or less the same success rates for grants as would be seen with the normal European Research Council (ERC) calls.’
This sentiment is echoed by Nicola Spaldin, a materials scientist based at ETH Zurich who sits on the ERC’s scientific council. ‘In terms of funding, Swiss scientists are still in a very good situation,’ she notes. ‘But the replacement schemes are a bit like telling Swiss athletes that we won’t bother going to the Olympics this year, and instead will have an internal competition with the same prize money.’
Beyond the ‘healthy competition’ brought by international funding calls, Spaldin highlights the fact that scientists in Switzerland can no longer hold leadership roles on Horizon-funded collaborations and ‘the loss of brilliant young people, who are now going elsewhere’ as significant problems for Swiss science.
These views are shared across the country’s research community. A recent survey of almost 900 Swiss researchers found that a majority of respondents believed that non-association to Horizon Europe was detrimental to Swiss science. Almost one third of the respondents detailed concrete examples of how the situation had affected their work. The two most commonly cited grievances related to the block on Swiss scientists taking coordinating roles on Horizon projects and the lack of international networking opportunities.
‘Most senior scientists already have collaborations established, but incoming new scientists have to build their collaborations and their networks – and now, it’s difficult for them,’ says Anna Fontcuberta i Morral, a materials scientist based at the EPFL research institute in Lausanne and current president of SNSF’s committee for international cooperation.
With quantum technology deemed of strategic importance to the EU, Fontcuberta i Morral notes that Swiss researchers have been barred from participating in Quantum Flagship projects in any capacity. ‘We could not apply to the last two deadlines, and this is a lot of funding – I think the last two deadlines were a total of €25 million,’ she says. ‘And it’s not only the research funding – it’s working with partners in Europe, it’s working with companies, it’s local companies working with researchers in Europe. It’s more than the funding.’
Softening the blow
Since its exclusion from the EU’s research programmes, Switzerland has sought to strengthen research ties with other territories through new bilateral agreements. In February, one such agreement was signed with the UK, which is itself facing the prospect of exclusion from the EU’s research programmes due to ongoing political disputes.
These agreements have been pursued to soften the blow of being frozen out of Horizon, notes Leumann. ‘But for the scientific community, it’s clear that this cannot be a replacement for the exclusion of the whole European science space,’ he says.
The desire for scientific partnerships to be unhindered by politics is clearly shared across Europe’s research community. More than 5000 researchers and 300 scientific organisations have signed the Stick to Science petition, calling for the EU, Switzerland and the UK to resume scientific collaboration.
Despite this groundswell of opinion among researchers, fears are growing that if association to the EU’s research programmes cannot be negotiated by the end of the year, Switzerland will likely be left in the wilderness until the end of the current cycle. In its analysis of future scenarios, Swissuniversities predicts that if efforts for full association fail this year then ‘full association in 2023 and in the following years of the Horizon Europe period until 2027 is practically impossible’. The consequences would be a long-term weakening of Switzerland as a hub for research, education and innovation, the organisation warns.
However, with Europe grappling with the war in Ukraine and the related energy crisis, negotiating Swiss access to EU science programmes seems to have dropped down the priority list for the continent’s most senior politicians. And any further delay would mean Switzerland re-joining Horizon when half of the programme is already over. Given the time that it can take to organise collaborative research networks, Leumann believes that joining Horizon much later than 2023 is effectively unworkable.
‘If by the end of this year we do not have any signal that negotiations can start again, then, in my view, Horizon Europe has passed,’ he says. ‘So essentially then we would have to prepare for the successor programme of Horizon Europe, and that’s painful.’
‘And we all hope that [by then] we will have resolved the problems on the political side,’ he adds. ‘We still feel to be hostages of politics – and I think that’s the worst thing that Europe and Switzerland can do, to let science suffer in these circumstances.’