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Horizon Europe: “Science does not stop at national borders”

When the framework agreement between Switzerland and the EU failed last July, Swiss universities were excluded from the European research and innovation framework program Horizon Europe. Guest author Alina Gander Prof. Dr. asked Torsten Schwede and Anita Soltermann.

Torsten Schwede has been vice-chancellor for research at the University of Basel since 2018. Anita Soltermann is head of the Grants Office at the University of Basel, which supports researchers interested in applying for EU funding.

What are the disadvantages for Swiss researchers as a result of Switzerland’s non-association?
Torsten Sweden: ERCs are for young researchers [European Research Council Grants] a very important tool because the ERC Quality Mark is a valuable success factor for the careers of young researchers. Under the previous full association status, Swiss scientists could directly participate in the Horizon program in the European competition. Switzerland has been very successful in this regard with research projects in the life sciences, but also in physics and other fields. These ERCs have now been canceled and participation is no longer possible.

Are there comparable alternative programs for Switzerland?

Turnip: No The Horizon Europe program is truly unique. Fortunately, the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) has “transitional measures” that partially offset the financial aspects. However, what these programs cannot replace is participation in a European competition. And to be honest, a replacement program doesn’t have as much importance on your resume as a successful ERC grant.

There is often some uncertainty among colleagues in Switzerland and Europe about exactly how the various replacement programs work and which parts of the Horizon Europe program Swiss researchers can apply for. This leads to a lot of confusion, communication and more red tape.

Anita Soltermann: In the worst case, such misunderstandings can lead to the fact that Swiss partners are no longer invited or their projects are rejected. So good communication is essential here! As a non-associated third country, Switzerland can also participate in joint projects as a partner.

Vice Chancellor Torsten Schwede in conversation with guest author Alina Gander (Image: University of Basel).

Are there trends showing that Swiss scientists are leaving Switzerland and now rather implement their projects in fully associated countries abroad?
Solterman: The problem is not so much that people who are already here are leaving, but rather that it will be difficult to make Switzerland an attractive meeting place from all over Europe if Swiss institutions cannot fully participate.

Turnip: In addition to the ERC programme, established researchers are interested in leading and coordinating European network projects, as this enables them to help shape the direction of research in their own field. However, this is no longer possible for researchers in Switzerland, and Swiss universities are less attractive for successful international researchers.

As a result, Swiss scientists can no longer access funding from the Horizon Europe program directly, but receive it through the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) or the State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation (SERI). Does it have negative consequences?

Turnip: Financial differences are often wrongly foregrounded. Until the “transitional measures” of the Swiss National Science Foundation compensate for the funding gaps, not much will change financially for Swiss researchers, it is mainly a different administrative mechanism. It is much more important for us to be part of scientific networks in order to contribute constructively, collaborate effectively with our colleagues and support the careers of young researchers. We fear gradual expulsion from important networks because it is too difficult for our European partners to deal with the special status of Switzerland.

Did the suspension of Horizon Europe lead to increased competition in the Canton?
Turnip: Basically, there is always competition between researchers and that is part of science. However, it is important that the “transitional measures” are of a comparable scale to Horizon Europe, otherwise we risk that the financial quotas of the SNSF in project financing will come under further pressure, and this would not be a good development for Switzerland. place of research.

Horizon Europe deals with global challenges such as climate change, digitization or health. Is it not fatal to Switzerland’s influence and reputation that it cannot participate fully in these important issues?
Turnip: We see this problem on both sides. It is a loss for Switzerland because we cannot participate in technological development and therefore cannot fully participate in development and learn from each other on important social issues such as climate change or digitization.

But it is also a loss for Europe, because Switzerland, as a technologically advanced nation, could make a significant contribution in many areas. For example, Basel forms the National Center of Competence in Research (NCCR) for quantum computing in Switzerland, but cannot participate in European quantum research projects. When it comes to climate issues, Switzerland has a lot to offer in the fields of engineering and modelling, for example. And in the field of life sciences, there is hardly a more innovative region in Europe than North-West Switzerland, but even at Horizon Europe we are not involved in promoting innovation.

In the end we will all lose, Switzerland will lose, Europe will lose, the world will lose.

Torsten Sweden

“But it is also a loss for Europe, because Switzerland, as a country with advanced technology, could make a significant contribution in many areas.” (Image: University of Basel).

How specifically do students not relate to non-association?
Solterman: Students cannot yet participate in these research projects. For postdocs, Marie Curie Fellowships would be important, supporting the international and interdisciplinary careers of scientists who have also left. However, the SNSF also adopted alternative measures for this.

Turnip: As a result of the suspension of the Erasmus program, student mobility in Switzerland has fallen significantly in European comparison, even though it is so important. There is definitely a need to catch up, as this lack of student mobility means a career disadvantage for Swiss students.

What exactly is the university doing to improve the situation?

Turnip: The University of Basel is firmly committed to clarifying the challenges of the current situation at all political levels. For example, we were in Bern together with representatives of the Basel Chamber of Commerce and Novartis and tried to explain the problem to the members of the National Council and the Council of States and to clarify the urgency. The two supporting cantons of the university, Basel-Stadt and Basel-Landschaft, presented identical cantonal initiatives to accelerate the political process. Contacts are established with representatives of the parliament, press interviews are given, colleagues in the EU are asked for support, …

Solterman: The Federal Council agrees that full association status should be pursued. So we have to increasingly reach out to the EU as well. With initiatives like Stick to the science we can show that we want this full association back and above all that science should not stop at state lines. Stick-to-science.eu is a pan-European initiative open to all researchers and universities as well as private individuals. It is about expressing to politicians and those in charge how important this full association is effectively for all of us. In various ways, for example through social networks, but also in discussions or through letters to Bern, the scientific community can make it clear that the current situation is unsustainable.

Until when can the association be expected?

Solterman: According to the State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation, not this year. However, we hope to be fully involved in the ongoing Horizon Europe in 2023. It’s hard to say how realistic it is. Switzerland withdrew once during the previous program when a mass immigration initiative was adopted in 2014. At that time, re-entry could be realized very quickly by signing the Croatian protocol.

Turnip: That was exactly the question at the time. This time it is more complex, inclusion in Horizon Europe cannot be reduced to one point. So our current strategy is double-edged: On the one hand, we remain persistent with the government, the politicians and the EU, and keep stressing that full association should be achieved as soon as possible – preferably still during the program and hopefully together with Erasmus.

At the same time, reasonable compensation measures must be offered. In addition to the “transitional measures” for Horizon Europe, the SNSF also increasingly relies on bilateral cooperation with other countries, for example initiatives to cooperate with non-European partners such as Japan, New Zealand or the USA. This new international cooperation is of course very valuable and can complement ERC and cooperation in European networks, but in no way replaces them.

Solterman: At the same time, it is planned to implement a replacement solution for cutting-edge technologies such as quantum research and digitization. But yes, these are matters for which exchange is essential and which Switzerland cannot solve alone.

What is Horizon Europe?
Horizon Europe is the European Union’s framework program for research and innovation, which will run from 2021-2027. With a budget of 95.5 billion euros, it is the world’s largest research and innovation funding program and, together with other EU programs, is supposed to support sustainable and digital development. Switzerland already participated in the previous Horizon 2020 program in 2014-2020 and has had the status of a fully associated country since 2017. This must be achieved again by Horizon Europe, as the current situation is perceived by all parties as unsatisfactory.

A current example of what can come out of ERC projects can be found for example at University of Basel website. The research team was able to label and modify cell surfaces without changing the cell’s properties. With the help of the investor, this approach is to be further developed for clinical use so that patients can also benefit from this type of cell therapy in the future. This shows how a “high risk/high return idea” that would normally only be funded by the ERC can also have a big impact on society.

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