In a sign of growing national tensions over the control of strategic research, the European Commission is trying to block countries outside the European Union from participating in quantum computing and space projects under Horizon Europe, its new research funding program.
The proposed calls, which must still be approved by delegates from the 27 EU member states in the coming weeks, would shut out researchers in countries accustomed to full access to European research programs, including Switzerland, the United Kingdom, and Israel. European Economic Area (EEA) countries Norway, Lichtenstein, and Iceland would be barred from space research calls while remaining eligible for quantum computing projects.
Research advocates see the proposed restrictions as self-defeating for all parties, including the European Union. “It would be a classic lose-lose, with researchers in all countries having to work harder, and spend more, to make progress in these fields,” says Vivienne Stern, director of UK Universities International. The unexpected news has upset some leaders of existing collaborations and left them scrambling to find out whether they will need to exclude partners—or even drop out themselves—if they want their projects to be eligible for further funding. “It is really a pity because we have a tight and fruitful relationship with our partners in the U.K.,” says Sandro Mengali, director of the Italian research nonprofit Consorzio C.R.E.O. and coordinator of an EU-funded project developing heat shields for spacecraft.
In 2018, when the European Commission first announced plans for the €85 billion, 7-year Horizon Europe program, it said it would be “open to the world.” Switzerland, Israel, the EEA nations, and other countries have long paid to “associate” with EU funding programs like Horizon Europe—giving their researchers the right to apply for grants, just like those in EU member states. After leaving the European Union, the United Kingdom struck a deal in December 2020 to join Horizon Europe, which put out its first grant calls last month through the European Research Council.
But more recently, “strategic autonomy” and “technological sovereignty” have become watchwords among policymakers in Brussels, who argue the European Union should domestically produce components in key technologies, such as quantum computers and space technology. Those views influenced the Commission’s research policy department, overseen by EU research commissioner Mariya Gabriel, which drafted the calls and their eligibility rules, first revealed by Science|Business. The draft says the restrictions are necessary to “safeguard the Union’s strategic assets, interests, autonomy, or security.”
“It’s a bit of a contradiction,” says a Swiss government official who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of forthcoming discussions. “You want to open the program to the world and work with the best. But the core group of associated countries with whom you’re used to working, suddenly you exclude them and force them to work with the competitors.” The official says the Commission gave no warnings the proposal was coming but believes the combination of Brexit and the COVID-19 crisis, in which Europe has struggled to secure access to vaccines, masks, and other equipment, may have further spurred Europe to guard its technologies. Negotiations on Swiss membership in Horizon Europe have not begun, but the country intends to join.
The restrictions affect €170 million in funding that could be available in the next few months. The affected areas include quantum computing, quantum communications, satellite communications, space transport, launchers, and “space technologies for European non-dependence and competitiveness.” Projects relating to the Copernicus Earth-observation system and the Galileo satellite navigation programs would remain largely open to associated countries.
Shutting out the associated countries would be a “lost opportunity” and could slow progress in quantum computing, says Lieven Vandersypen, a quantum nanoscientist at the Delft University of Technology. “To me, it doesn’t make sense.” Vandersypen contributes to an EU-funded project that is investigating how to create the basic bits of a quantum computer from cheap and readily available silicon. The project includes U.K. and Swiss researchers at University College London and the University of Basel. “They are in there for a good reason,” Vandersypen says. “They bring in really valuable expertise.” With a few years left on the grant, the project isn't in any immediate danger. But the exclusions are bad for long-term planning, Vandersypen says.
Non-EU researchers working on a €150 million European quantum “flagship” initiative set up in 2018 are also upset by the sudden reversal and wonder about their future status. “We discuss with our partners in Europe, they ask us, ‘Can you join?’ And we don’t know—that’s probably the worst thing,” says Hugo Zbinden, a quantum physicist at the University of Geneva and coordinator of one of these flagship projects, QRANGE, which is investigating how a quantum random number generator can be used to improve encryption.
The restrictions are not yet set in stone; national delegates could reject the draft calls and ask the Commission to open them up. But member states accepted the legal basis for the restrictions last year, when they agreed to the Horizon Europe legislation. “Of course, you hope that we will be in,” Zbinden says. “For the time being, we are waiting for some news.”