When Switzerland tries to give its research a horizon


© Keystone / Gaetan Bally

The abandonment of the negotiations on the framework agreement between the European Union and Switzerland has excluded the Union from crucial research programs. The government then intervened by granting transitional grants to researchers and start-ups. Bern is also counting on new partnerships with several countries outside the EU. Will that be enough? The point in a long-term perspective.

This content was published on April 11, 2022 – 09:35

Emiliano Feresin

Charlotte Laufkötter had just started her studies when Swiss researchers received their first funding from the EU in 2004. Nearly two decades later, the EU drastically restricted Switzerland’s access to Horizon Europe, the major international funding program. As a result, Charlotte Laufkötter is one of the last scientists to take advantage of it.

She is a researcher in marine biochemistry at the University of Bern and received a prestigious Starting Grant from the European Research Council (ERC) in January last year. This € 1.5 million grant is to help him use supercomputers and autonomous beacon data to simulate how carbon dioxide sinks into the oceans. An element of basic research in the context of climate change.

In early 2021, when Charlotte Laufkötter applied for this grant, Switzerland estimated that Horizon Europe would fund research – Parliament had approved a contribution of around 5 billion francs to a European program with a budget of up to 2027 of 100 billion franc.

But the situation changed abruptly in May 2021. After seven years of negotiations, Switzerland withdrew from discussions aimed at renewing dozens of bilateral agreements on such diverse issues as migration or trade. As an almost immediate consequence, the European Commission has chosen to downgrade Switzerland, which will be a third country not affiliated with the Horizon Europe program.

As a result, Swiss researchers are no longer eligible to apply for ERC scholarships. The European Commission makes an exception: Those who applied in Switzerland before the collapse of the negotiations can keep their funding, provided they move to an EU institution or another eligible country. Hence a fierce competition to attract the most skilled heads.

Like many others, Charlotte Laufkötter was contacted by EU universities, childcare services, a career proposal for her partner and a permanent position on the line. The Swedish Research Council has gone so far as to offer the recipients 100,000 francs extraExternal link for their installation in the kingdom.

Offers that the Berner researcher found tempting but rejected. “My project is designed to be carried out at the University of Bern,” she explains. In addition, my partner lives in Switzerland. So I was happy to get extra funding. ” Explanation: The State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation (SERI) has offered fellows loyal to Switzerland support similar to those of the ERC.

The importance of EU support

Under the label associated country, Swiss scientists and companies could apply for grants from European foundations. The research groups participated in or even led European scientific projects. A fruitful participation. Switzerland got more out of it than it contributed, says the SERI report in 2019External link. As part of the Horizon 2020 program (2014-2020), it obtained 2.7 billion francs in funding. A first place among the associated countries and an overall eighth place.

Horizon 2020 was the second most important source of public funding for Swiss researchers (after the Swiss National Science Foundation, SNSF). And the most significant for start-ups. In 2020 alone, 17 Swiss companies received up to 2.5 million euros each.

At the individual level, the ERC has funded more than 800 Swiss scientists. “The advantage of an ERC grant is that it is both very well known and prestigious,” notes Charlotte Laufkötter. Recognized for its competitive dimension and a rigorous selection process, it is likely to advance academic careers. That is why the Swiss researcher always includes her in his CV, as a “badge of honor”.

SERI’s emergency measures apparently limited the damage. To date, only one winner has left Switzerland to retain his Starting Grant. Last month, the same SERI offered to equalize their ERC Consolidator Grant to 26 recipients. A grant that helps more experienced researchers consolidate their research and their team.

The SNSF has created complete copies of the ERC appropriations at national level. But in the long run, these Swiss versions may prove less attractive, note scientists contacted by SWI swissinfo.ch. More than 50% of researchersExternal link working in Switzerland comes from abroad. And the ERC scholarships were not the last of the arguments for attracting them. “Without access to Horizon Europe, it will be a real challenge to attract the most talented brains and maintain the high quality level of research in Switzerland,” assures Yves Flückiger, Rector of the University of Geneva. “We need to reinvent new forms of collaboration and new forms of funding,” adds the man, who chairs Swiss universities, the umbrella organization for higher education institutions.

To compensate for the loss of European funds, the Federal Council approved transitional measures and launched the “Swiss Accelerator” program through the Swiss Innovation Promotion Agency Innosuisse. But several entrepreneurs and scientists have told SWI swissinfo.ch that some start-ups are already planning to open offices in other European countries.

Looking for quantum collaborations

Together with grants to scientists and companies, international collaborations were another cornerstone of Switzerland’s participation in EU programs. During Horizon 2020, Swiss research institutions, companies and non-profit associations coordinated 1,211 projects (approximately 4% of the total number) and achieved the highest overall success rate according to SERIExternal link.

This table is about to change. “Third country” status allows research groups and Swiss companies to participate in European projects, but no longer to lead them. “As a result, we will lose visibility, prestige and the ability to influence major projects,” laments Dimitri Konstantas of the University of Geneva. He himself coordinates H2020 AVENUE, a 22 million franc project testing autonomous vehicles in Geneva and three other European cities.

Switzerland is now missing out on crucial research. In the field of quantum technologies, the EU has e.g. launched the Quantum Flagship initiativeExternal link in 2018, with a budget of 1 billion euros and the goal of developing quantum computers, secure data transmission and sensor technology. The Swiss partners participated in 11 of the 24 collaborative projects in this emblematic project. Including many start-ups and companies. “Our cooperation ends this month. As quantum technology is of strategic importance to the EU, we can not even participate in it on the basis of our own resources. We are simply excluded!” regrets Andreas Wallraff, at ETH Zurich.

Together with his team, the Swiss company Zurich Instruments and eight European partners, he worked on a superconducting quantum computer. With research approaching the technical frontiers of the classical computer, quantum computers promise to open up new solutions within the coming decades. The key is e.g. development of new drugs or more efficient batteries.

Many countries already have their national program focusing on quantum technologies. Germany alone is investing 2 billion euros in this area. In Switzerland, but still an important player, nothing like it. “To stay in the competition, we need to invest more than before in Switzerland itself, for example in large projects such as quantum research,” notes Yves Flückiger from Swiss universities. But he also warns: It may not be enough to invest nationally. “Science is much more open than it was 30 years ago. As we have seen with vaccines against Covid-19, data sharing and the development of international collaborations are the key to scientific progress and the building of huge infrastructures.

Forward-looking alliances

Switzerland is handicapped in cooperating with the EU and intends to relaunch its strategic alliances with countries outside the EU – the representatives of SFRI and the FNS recently had bilateral meetings with their colleagues from the US, Canada, Brazil and the UK.

Strengthening external networks is certainly not a bad idea, but for a country across Europe, the natural partners are located around it. Especially from a transport and mobility perspective. “We could not carry out the AVENUE project with other partners,” assures Dimitri Konstantas. In Europe, we share the same mobility culture, separate from that in the United States or Asia, where problems and solutions are also different. “

More than 5,000 scientists across the continent stress the need for continued collaboration. They launched the “Stick to science” campaign.External linkwhich calls for rapid association agreements within Horizon Europe for Switzerland and the United Kingdom, despite current political differences. The campaign emphasizes that Europe needs the commitment and scientific contributions of these two research-intensive countries.

However, since the conclusion of the negotiations between Switzerland and the EU, the relationship has become complicated. The Federal Council now wants to renegotiateExternal link existing treaties, beginning with the most urgent, including full association for Swiss research – a stated goal. The exploratory talks with the EU on this new approach have just begun. A rapid reintegration of Switzerland into Horizon therefore does not appear to be imminent.

However, Swiss universities are requesting that Switzerland be re-associated with Horizon Europe as soon as possible. In Switzerland, the economy, innovation and research are booming, says Yves Flückiger. But the problem is bigger in the long run. “Ultimately, it is the quality of life in Switzerland that is at stake: health, education, employment, progress in sustainable development.”

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