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Switzerland closer to accessing EU research money, but questions remain

EU framework programme funding is the second-largest source of public funding for Swiss researchers after the Swiss National Science Foundation. Keystone / Laurent Gillieron

The Swiss research community breathed a small sigh of relief this week after parliament rubberstamped the financial package for the Alpine nation’s participation in the European Union’s Horizon Europe research programme. Access to the world’s biggest scientific funding initiative is key for non-EU members like Switzerland and the UK, who are anxious about being left out but whose level of participation remains unclear.

This content was published on December 18, 2020 - 14:37
Simon Bradley (text), Jonas Glatthard (graphics)

On Wednesday, the House of Representatives joined the Senate in approving the government’s proposed financial packageExternal link (CHF6.1 billion) towards Switzerland’s continued participation in the EU’s Horizon research programme as an associated state. Under the current scheme the Alpine country contributes to the programme budget proportionally to its gross domestic product (GDP) and Swiss researchers and organisations can apply for funds with the same status as EU members. But associated countries like Switzerland have no say in negotiations over how the money is spent.

What is Horizon Europe?

Horizon EuropeExternal link is the EU’s €100 billion research funding scheme, one of the most ambitious science funding initiatives in the world. It aims to strengthen the scientific and technological base in Europe, boost economic competitiveness and create jobs. It is due to officially start on January 1, 2021 and run until 2027. The European Commission estimates scientists could see the first calls for grant applications by April.

Horizon Europe and Switzerland

Horizon EuropeExternal link is the EU’s €100 billion research funding programme. The CHF6.1 billion financial package passed by parliament covers Swiss entry into Horizon Europe. It also includes Swiss researchers’ ongoing collaboration in the Euratom nuclear programme and the international ITER fusion research project and allow them to join the EU’s “Digital Europe” scheme.

Talks between Switzerland and the EU over access to the scheme are expected to start at the beginning of 2021. If for any reason the process is delayed, the government bill passed on Wednesday offers Swiss researchers and projects a financial stop-gap solution to tide them over with Swiss funds. If an agreement with the EU is reached later, it will come into effect retroactively as of January 1, 2021.

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How involved is non-member Switzerland in EU framework research programmes?

Switzerland is not a member of the EU. But Bern and Brussels share long-standing and successful cooperation ties in the area of research and innovation.

The Alpine nation was temporarily demoted in Horizon 2020 after voters backed migration quotasExternal link in 2014. It regained full association status and access to Horizon 2020 three years later after having ratified the free movement of people accord with Croatia. The impact is visible in the chart below.

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Why is it important for Switzerland to participate in Horizon Europe?

Switzerland got the second-highest amount of funding of any associated state under Horizon 2020, at CHF2.2 billion or 3.9% of the total. About two-thirds of the EU research money that Switzerland receives goes to universities.

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EU framework programme funding is the second-largest source of public funding for Swiss researchers after the Swiss National Science Foundation (CHF4.8 billion), and the largest source for companies, in particular small and medium-sized businesses, according to the State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation (SERI). Since gaining associated status in the framework programmes in 2004, Switzerland has enjoyed a positive financial return due to the high success of its researchers in EU grant competitions.

Almost one in five Swiss proposals submitted to the European Commission for Horizon 2020 projects are successful (18.2% success rate), ranking Switzerland third behind Iceland and Belgium (European average:15.7%).

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But taking part in the EU scheme is about more than just gaining access to funds, says SERI. It also represents an opportunity to cooperate with European partners, increase competitiveness and for researchers and institutions to gain international prestige.

Each project participation leads to the creation of one new job in Switzerland and nearly half of all EU-funded projects secured by Swiss SMEs lead to a new patent and innovative products, a 2019 report showedExternal link. Each project generates on average five scientific publications and a trickledown effect for the Swiss research community: each Swiss project results in a Masters and a Doctorate degree.

Can Switzerland now join Horizon Europe?

On December 17, the European Parliament joined the EU Council in agreeingExternal link on the budget for 2021-2027 for Horizon Europe programme. Further political decisions this week should pave the way for a launch next year.

By approving its financial contribution, Switzerland has signalled its readiness to continue to participate fully as an associated state. Education Minister Guy Parmelin told Swiss public television, SRF, that Wednesday’s approval means that the government can now discuss Horizon Europe with Brussels but there are still legal issues to be ironed out within the EU.

European institutions are still thrashing out some of the details. Most importantly for Switzerland and other non-member states like newcomer Britain, the EU has to define membership terms and conditions outlined in the European Commission proposalExternal link. Questions like how much funding they will have access to, and what priority they will have, still need to be answered.

The Swiss government insists that participation in the European research programme is in no way linked to stalled talks with Brussels on a long-term institutional framework agreement. Research does not concern access to the EU market, says Parmelin.

But SERI also told SRF that the European Commission had “on various occasions” linked the continuation of Swiss association to new EU research and innovation programmes to advances in the institutional deal.

Swiss researchers’ concerns

As they move forward with the much-bigger Horizon Europe scheme, the European Commission wants to expand the possibilities of association in an “Open to the World” strategy. It has created four categories for third countries. Switzerland would feature in a category of like-minded countries, along with Britain, Canada and Australia, which have “good capacity in science, technology and innovation”. Previously Switzerland was in a category with European Economic Area (EEA) countries like Norway, Liechtenstein and Iceland. This change is part of plans to widen the scheme and to prevent third countries, apart from EEA states, getting more money out than they put in.

Swiss university rectors are fearful that with this move they could lose out on the EU research funding pot. But the EU denies any change in category will affect the funding of future Swiss projects. SERI, for its part, remains optimistic about Swiss participation in Horizon Europe, stressing Switzerland’s reputation as a strong partner.

“In any case, the exact conditions for Switzerland's participation will be the subject of negotiations between Switzerland and the EU,” SERI spokesperson Simone Keller told swissinfo.ch.

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