The SNSF assists researchers from Switzerland with European cooperation, including the associated networks. Switzerland has been excluded from important parts of the Horizon Europe research programme since June 2021.
Switzerland is located at the heart of Europe and is linked to its neighbours by geographic proximity and close economic ties. These links are also apparent in the intensive transnational scientific cooperation that takes place within Europe. Two thirds of the researchers whose projects are funded by the SNSF cooperate with European partners. These networks are used to develop ideas, share knowledge and jointly address global issues such as dementia, antimicrobial resistance or cybercrime.
The SNSF is committed to Switzerland as a centre for research and uses various measures to support scientific cooperation within Europe. For example, it negotiates agreements to make it easier for researchers to cooperate across national borders or provides funding for global network-building that scientists can also use to cooperate with colleagues in Europe. In addition, the SNSF is continuing to expand cooperation with partner organisations in Europe.
Association to Horizon still the best solution
European Research Framework Programmes are the world’s biggest research and innovation programmes and as such an important part of the funding landscape. Swiss researchers are excluded from important areas of the current EU programme by virtue of Switzerland having been a non-associated third country since June 2021. However, some parts of the current EU programme are still open to them.
This partial exclusion is detrimental not only to the researchers themselves, but also to the competitiveness of research in Switzerland and ultimately to the country’s economy. Basic research and innovation go hand-in-hand, which is why the SNSF supports rapid and complete association to Horizon Europe.
At the Confederation’s behest, the SNSF is currently implementing measures intended to provide tangible support for researchers in Switzerland facing this critical situation. Failure to associate to Horizon Europe in the long run would require a suitable package of medium- and long-term measures as well as corresponding financial resources. However, association remains the best form of participation and cannot be completely compensated by accompanying measures.
SNSF support for European cooperation
Close and uncomplicated cooperation within Europe is important for researchers in Switzerland, and the SNSF, as an organisation of researchers for researchers, has made it an area of particular focus for this reason. The SNSF also facilitates cooperation outside the European Framework Programmes for Research and Innovation and complements their offer. This helps enhance Switzerland’s standing as a centre for research while simultaneously giving researchers in the country a boost and empowering them to compete within Europe.
The SNSF has concluded agreements with partners in various countries. These simplify the submission and evaluation of cross-border projects. The SNSF is also making European cooperation easier by participating in the EU’s COST (Cooperation in Science and Technology) programme. The Confederation has mandated the SNSF to compensate for the lack of association to the EU programmes to the extent that this is possible by providing new funding schemes such as the transitional measures.
In addition to funding research, the SNSF is involved in various European research policy forums such as Science Europe, the association of major European research organisations, where it networks with partner organisations. Alongside the State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation (SERI) and Innosuisse, the SNSF funds SwissCore, the Swiss information and liaison office for European policies and programmes in research, innovation and education in Brussels. SwissCore keeps the SNSF and ERI partners up-to-date on developments in Europe and supports links with various stakeholders.
The importance of European Research Framework Programmes to Switzerland
Around 60 per cent of researchers who receive SNSF funding for their projects work with colleagues from European countries. Scientists in the EU are by far the most frequent partners of Swiss researchers, ahead of those in the USA (19%) and the UK (9%). Similar values and physical and cultural proximity are important factors here.
As the biggest international research and innovation programme in the world, the current Horizon Europe Framework Programme occupies a major position in the funding landscape. These European programmes give researchers in Switzerland an unparalleled forum for cooperation in Europe by allowing scientists to work together on projects that would have been impossible at individual country level. Moreover, researchers’ ideas and projects are compared and selected as part of a transnational competitive process. Having a proposal accepted, particularly by the European Research Council (ERC), brings considerable prestige and career opportunities for researchers. Until it was partially excluded from Horizon Europe in June 2021, Switzerland was one of the top five countries for ERC grants.
According to a report by the State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation (SERI, 2019), the EU Framework Programmes are the second-biggest source of third-party funding for researchers in Switzerland.
Benefits of association
Association allows researchers in Switzerland to participate as equal partners. This means they are involved in research projects right from the preparatory phase and can contribute their scientific expertise fully to pan-European collaborative projects. They also obtain access to important data and information that are necessary to establish cooperation.
Association allows Swiss researchers to continue to help shape European research programmes. They can thus take part in the drafting of calls for proposals, for example.
Effects of longer-term partial exclusion
Switzerland is currently a non-associated third country for the purposes of the EU’s Horizon Europe Research Framework Programme. Researchers from Switzerland can only compete for the prestige of mono-beneficiary grants from the European Research Council (ERC) if they leave Switzerland and conduct their project in an associated country.
Restricted participation in the Horizon Europe programmes is also eroding networks. For example, researchers from Switzerland are losing access to infrastructure that they need for experiments. While established researchers with strong connections are still able to access European networks, the situation is more challenging for young researchers. Moreover, surveys conducted at universities show that the present uncertainty is reducing Swiss researchers’ appeal as partners, resulting in them being invited to participate less frequently. This ultimately damages Switzerland’s attractiveness as a place to conduct research.
As early as June 2022 – about a year after the partial exclusion from Horizon Europe – around 70% of researchers reported poorer access to networks. This was shown in a survey by the State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation (SERI) on the effects of non-association.
Experience shows that there will be a delay before the full extent of the real-terms effects becomes apparent. In the long run, Switzerland risks losing its finest minds to other countries, and with them its research leadership, with ultimately substantial consequences for economic and social progress.
Measures in the current situation
Swiss researchers can still participate in certain areas of the European research programmes. For example, they can still take part in collaborative projects addressing global challenges (e.g. health, climate or energy research). The SNSF supports participation wherever possible, for example via the European Partnerships’ calls for proposals, as this is still an area where Swiss researchers can play a leading role. Participating in the various collaborative projects helps stave off network erosion, and it is important for researchers from Switzerland to have easy access to information on their options for taking part.
In addition, the Confederation has taken national-level measures to support researchers. For example, the SNSF has been mandated by the Confederation to implement transitional measures (Horizon Europe measures) and is awarding funding in a competitive process. Depending on how the situation around Horizon Europe evolves, it may be necessary for the ERI partners to develop additional measures to maintain Switzerland’s appeal as a place to conduct research. To do so, they will be reliant on multi-year federal financing.
SNSF supports full association
Association to Horizon Europe cannot be fully replaced either by national efforts such as the transitional and supplementary measures or by extending cooperation outside Europe. For example, it is difficult to build extensive international networks from just one single country and alongside the world’s biggest research framework programme. Moreover, new bilateral or multilateral cooperation programmes with research funding partners outside the EU require several years’ lead time, which is why the SNSF supports rapid and complete association to Horizon Europe.
Switzerland was first fully associated to a European Framework Programme – Framework Programme 6 – in 2004. As a result, it was able to participate in the same way as EU Member States and contributed to the programme budget. It was an equal partner in the ongoing development and implementation of the programmes. Switzerland was excluded for the first time in 2014 after the mass immigration initiative was accepted in a referendum. The country attained partial association in 2015, then full association in 2017 following the revision of its immigration law. Since June 2021, after the Federal Council broke off negotiations with the EU on the institutional framework agreement, Switzerland has been unable to take part in important parts of Horizon Europe.
The current national measures will not be sufficient if Switzerland remains non-associated or only partly associated. Without further action and the appropriate financial resources, Switzerland's appeal as a place to conduct research will decline in the long run. It is becoming harder for young scientists in particular to join European networks. This is making it more difficult to recruit talent for research institutes in Switzerland.
To offer researchers a long-term perspective, additional measures should be sustainably and constantly put in place. These should also reflect the challenges that long-term non-association could bring with it. This will reduce Switzerland’s dependence on European Framework Programmes.
Since the EU is currently preparing its successor programme for research and innovation, this programme should also be factored into strategy considerations. The SNSF’s goal with respect to this successor programme is unchanged and remains full association. Here again, however, this is dependent on political decisions.