Swiss research fears isolation


Research at the EPFL astrophysics laboratory near Lausanne. Keystone / Laurent Gillieron

Researchers are leaving, professors are reluctant to work at Swiss universities, Swiss students are being harmed: Swiss research is going through difficult times. The academic field points to the vagueness that reigns in relations between Switzerland and the EU. Because in European research, Switzerland has become a “third country” without privileges.

This content was published on October 22, 2022 – 10:00

Denise Lachat, Swiss Review

“We are a small country, which has always relied on recruiting foreign researchers,” says Michael Hengartner, Chairman of the ETH Board. This is why, he says, all Swiss universities are bathed in an international atmosphere, which is favorable to the integration of people from abroad.

Michael Hengartner. Keystone / Peter Klaunzer

Knowledge and training are among Switzerland’s most important resources. This is reflected in a successful education system, first-class infrastructure and universities that regularly top international rankings. Michael Hengartner speaks of a real “ecosystem”, which stimulates cutting-edge research and has a solid, flexible and competitive funding system.

“Naturally, we are also able to offer very good working conditions,” adds Martin Vetterli, President of EPFL. Thus, the density of renowned scientists in Switzerland is well above average, which makes it possible to attract young talents to our country, says Martin Vetterli. Or should we rather say “allowed”?

Switzerland loses its access to the “Champions League”

The abandonment of negotiations with the EU on a framework agreement has serious consequences for research. In its research framework programme, the EU downgraded Switzerland to the rank of “non-associated third country”.

Within the framework of Horizon Europe, Switzerland thus loses the position it occupied and the influence it had hitherto. However, Horizon Europe is the largest program in the world for research and innovation, with a budget of nearly 100 billion euros for a period of seven years (2021-2027). Its financial allocation has further increased significantly compared to the 79 billion euros of the previous program, Horizon 2020, in which Switzerland was an associated partner.


Research at CERN near Meyrin. © Keystone / Salvatore Di Nolfi

Admittedly, Switzerland is not totally excluded from collaboration with its main research partner. However, Swiss researchers can no longer lead major cooperation projects and no longer receive grants from the European Research Council (ERC).

Michael Hengartner describes these ERC grants as the “champions league of research”. EPFL President Martin Vetterli knows them well: “Without the ERC grant, which amounted to nearly two million euros over five years, I would not have been able to go as far as I I did my research on digital signal processing”.

Yves Flückiger, president of the Swiss universities (swissuniversities), adds that people doing research in Switzerland are entirely excluded from several important research fields. He mentions the flagship initiative on quantum technologies, which is of strategic importance for the development of digitalisation, the construction of the international nuclear fusion reactor ITER, a project which Switzerland has been co-piloting since 2007, and the program for a digital Europe ( Digital Europe), focused on high performance computing, artificial intelligence and cybersecurity.

The erosion has already started

According to Martin Vetterli, Switzerland has so far been one of the most active countries associated with European research, mainly in the fields of health, environment, climate and quantum technology. For more than a year, it has been sidelined, despite the financial efforts of the Confederation, which intervened with transitional funding amounting to 1.2 billion francs.

Martin Vetterli tells the story of start-ups that were created on the EPFL campus and are now opening offices in Europe to ensure that they can continue to attract talent and benefit from European funds . Yves Flückiger knows the first researchers who left Switzerland for France, Austria and Belgium with their ERC grants. And Michael Hengartner notes that the candidates for professorships in the two EPFs are now asking the same question: is Switzerland likely to see itself soon reassociated with EU programs?

The criteria of an association

Associate status in EU Research Framework Programs puts researchers from other countries on an equal footing with those from EU Member States. It is granted:

  1. to members of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) who are also members of the European Economic Area (EEA);
  2. to countries which have started a process of accession to the EU or are candidates or potential candidates for EU membership;
  3. European Neighborhood Policy (ENP) countries;
  4. to other third countries and regions which fulfill a series of criteria linked to their economic, political, research and innovation systems.

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Switzerland’s prosperity depends on it

Work in his corner? In the world of research, this is unthinkable. Just like in that of innovation: in reaction to the non-association of Switzerland, the famous Geneva company ID Quantique (see box below) opened a subsidiary in Vienna to maintain its access to Horizon Europe.

Yves Flückiger notes that the hundred jobs that would have been created in Switzerland are now in Vienna. For Switzerland, the challenge of Horizon Europe is not only research and researchers, who fear for their leading positions. It is also students and teachers who now hesitate to come to Switzerland. Horizon Europe also enables technology transfer, which leads to the founding of start-ups and SMEs and the creation of jobs in research and business. The representatives of the universities are unanimous on this point – Horizon Europe is crucial for Switzerland’s economic position and prosperity.

The relationship crisis between Switzerland and the EU continues

Almost a year after the abandonment of negotiations on a framework agreement, Switzerland is making a new attempt to regulate its future relations with the EU. But the road to a viable solution between Bern and Brussels is still long, and marked by mistrust on both sides. In terms of domestic policy too, no consensus is in sight.

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Yves Flückiger considers that the Federal Council should not concentrate now on new research partnerships outside the EU: the competition, in terms of research, is played out between the EU, the United States and China. Consequently, the non-association of Switzerland remains, according to him, the real problem.

Clarify relationships

Asked about this question, the European delegation stated that Swiss researchers have always been welcome and valued partners in EU research programmes. And that they remain so: “Swiss researchers are authorized to participate in Horizon Europe projects under the conditions that apply to non-associated third countries. For a full-fledged association, including in particular the right to benefit from European funds, the EU regulation requires third States to conclude a framework agreement which sets out the conditions and modalities of the association. Further developments on this issue should be seen in the context of overall EU-Switzerland relations.”


Climate research in Upper Engadine. © Keystone / Mayk Wendt

The EU therefore urges Switzerland to clarify its relations with its European neighbours. Until then, she sees no reason to grant privileges to Swiss research. And neither the efforts of diplomacy nor the appeal launched by scientists have so far changed anything. The President of the ETH Board, Michael Hengartner, emphasizes that this situation is not only unfavorable for Swiss research, but also for European research: “Everyone is an undeniable loser.”

Swiss beacons in European research

What concrete results have the European Research Framework Programs brought, and what benefits does Switzerland derive from the collaboration? Yves Flückiger, rector of the University of Geneva and president of swissuniversities, answers without hesitation.

CERN: this research laboratory is nothing less than the cradle of European research. Founded in 1954 on the Franco-Swiss border near Geneva, it was one of the first common European projects and today has 23 member states. In 1984, this scientific space was reinforced by the European research framework programmes. Yves Flückiger: “These programs have played a decisive role in the development of basic research and its industrial application, in particular by encouraging collaboration between laboratories and companies”. Since 2012 and the discovery of the Higgs boson, CERN has been known around the world.

BioNtech: Perhaps the best-known recent result of research transfer is the first messenger RNA vaccine against Covid-19. It is the direct result of research funded for nearly 20 years by the ERC. “This vaccine was developed by the biotechnology company BioNtech, a European company whose founders Ugur Sahin and Özlem Türeci, a couple of Turkish origin living in Germany, were funded by the ERC,” says Yves Flückiger. .

Quantum ID: founded in 2001 in Geneva by four scientists from the University of Geneva, ID Quantique is another example cited by Yves Flückiger. The company has received significant financial resources from the Swiss National Fund (SNSF), but also from various European programs. Originally a small spin-off, it has become the world leader in solutions for secure quantum cryptography. Telecommunications giant SK Telecom (South Korea) and Deutsche Telekom are among the investors. ID Quantique is headquartered in Geneva and maintains close ties with academic institutions through its participation in several Swiss, European and Korean research and development programs, in order to bring innovations to market.

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This article originally appeared in the Swiss ReviewExternal link.

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Swiss research fears isolation


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