"Swiss research needs Europe"
The next European research framework programme Horizon Europe is due to start in 2021 and run for seven years. Here Angelika Kalt, Director of the SNSF, talks about the programme's significance for research in Switzerland - and why Switzerland's participation is at risk.
Switzerland is a world leader in science. Why is participation in Horizon Europe so im-portant for us?
Because cutting-edge research today is often the result of several research groups working together, often from different countries. Like the ongoing Horizon 2020 programme, the up-coming programme will promote European integration and collaboration on global challenges such as health or climate change. But it will also focus on innovation, which will be of great interest to Swiss SMEs in particular.
The selection process in itself is beneficial for researchers in Switzerland: they compete for grants with the best researchers in the same field from all over Europe. This drives quality standards up.
Another key aspect is mobility within Europe, which will be promoted under specific Horizon Europe schemes.
The SNSF fears that a 'yes' vote on the self-determination initiative will jeopardise Swit-zerland's participation in Horizon Europe. Why?
The initiative wants to enshrine in the constitution that Swiss laws will take precedence over non-binding international laws. International agreements that contravene a new article in the constitution would have to be terminated or renegotiated. If the initiative were to be accepted, it is unclear to what extent this would affect the bilateral agreements, the freedom of move-ment agreement or the research agreement. And how the European Union would respond.
Would Swiss science really have to reckon with adverse consequences?
We had a similar experience after the 'yes' vote on the mass migration initiative in 2014. This led to the exclusion of Switzerland from the research framework programme Horizon 2020. In the course of 2014, Switzerland was able to obtain partial association through negotiation. It regained fully associated status in 2016. But the partial exclusion, although temporary, has had a harmful effect on research in Switzerland.
In what way?
Compared to the previous programme, Swiss participation in projects has gone down from 3.2% to 2.4%. And the financial contributions to Swiss project partners dropped from 4.3% to 3.5%. Fewer Swiss researchers were invited to join research networks. In addition, they were for a short period excluded from the funding schemes of the European Research Council.
But the government took special measures?
Yes, it covered the costs of Swiss researchers participating in European joint projects. But the lack of legal certainty made some of the researchers in other European countries wary of work-ing with researchers in Switzerland. This scenario is likely to be repeated in the event that we are excluded again.
Wouldn't the SNSF be able to create new funding schemes to compensate for the loss of funding in Europe?
That’s what we did during the exclusion of Swiss research from Horizon 2020. But such measures are only a temporary fix. National funding schemes are no replacement for European cooperation and competition.
And what if an association to Horizon Europe can be achieved despite voters saying ‘yes’ to the self-determination initiative, would everything be alright then?
No, because the loss of legal certainty would nevertheless hamper research cooperation with Europe. Science in Switzerland is dependent on the country’s strong reputation as a reliable partner and on stable international relations, particularly with the EU. When collaborating internationally becomes difficult, research quality suffers. Such a scenario would affect our country negatively because research and innovation are the drivers of economic and social prosperity and change.
The SNSF is worried not only about the self-determination initiative, but also the institu-tional framework agreement between Switzerland and the EU.
The framework agreement provides stability and legal certainty in relations between Switzer-land and the EU. It is not specifically linked to Horizon Europe. However, our experiences with the mass migration initiative suggest that Switzerland’s stance on the framework agreement will affect its participation in Horizon Europe.
What can the SNSF do?
The European Parliament is currently preparing a statement on the initial proposal for Horizon Europe. In the statement it will also address the question of the association of non-EU coun-tries such as Switzerland. Parliament will vote on it in November 2019.
Together with the Swiss government and other actors from the Swiss science community, the SNSF is making every effort to ensure that the European Parliament approves our country’s associated status. This would also benefit Europe - because of Switzerland’s strength in re-search and the substantial financial contribution it can make. If Europe is to compete with North America and Asia scientifically and economically, all its countries must work together.
Angelika Kalt has been the director of the Swiss National Science Foundation since 2016. She has a PhD in geology and, for eight years, she was a full professor of petrology and internal geo-dynamics at the University of Neuchâtel. In 2008 she joined the SNSF as its deputy director. In 2014 she oversaw the implementation of the “Temporary Backup Schemes” of the SNSF. These schemes were launched in response to Switzerland’s temporary exclusion from the Horizon 2020 research programme.