Swiss scientists are concerned they might lose access to European research funding after the country announced on 26 May it would not ratify a major new treaty with the European Union.
The treaty—called the Institutional Framework Agreement (IFA)—would have replaced many existing agreements between the EU and Switzerland on matters such as migration and trade. Negotiations about the deal broke down this week after 7 years because of disagreements over immigration, social security, and other topics.
Although science funding is not part of the IFA, Swiss researchers fear the political fallout could derail separate negotiations over Swiss access to Horizon Europe, the €95.5 billion EU research funding program that officially began this year. Switzerland, like a handful of other non-EU nations, has previously paid for full access to EU research programs as an “associate” member, but talks on joining the new program have not begun.
I am definitely very concerned,” says Martin Vetterli, president of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL). Vetterli fears “science and innovation will be collateral damage of the friction over the cooperation agreement.” Yesterday, the European Commission’s chief spokesperson, Eric Mamer, said the Swiss decision to withdraw from IFA talks doesn’t exclude Switzerland from Horizon Europe but said it “could have an impact,” because the membership application would be reviewed “in light of our overall relationship with Switzerland.”
The uncertainty means EU researchers applying for Horizon Europe grants are “not willing to trust a Swiss partner in their consortium if they’re not sure that the partner will be able to participate,” says Christian Fauteux, a mechanical engineer at EPFL and director of the EU-funded Human Brain Project. That’s frustrating, he says, because the Human Brain Project’s purpose is “to run a Europe-wide infrastructure for brain research, and we want Switzerland to take part.”
Switzerland has been frozen out of EU research funding before. In 2014, the bloc put Switzerland’s signed agreement for full association to Horizon 2020, the predecessor to Horizon Europe, on ice because the country had not opened its labor market to immigrants from Croatia, which joined the EU in 2013. The suspension was lifted after Switzerland allowed Croatian nationals freedom of movement at the end of 2016. Vetterli worries that getting on board Horizon Europe may prove “trickier” because talks about joining haven't even started.
“It’s always unfortunate when science becomes a punching bag for politics,” Vetterli laments. Nevertheless, he says the death of the IFA at least “clarifies the situation: This had been lingering for a long time.” Now, Swiss officials want to know whether the Commission will begin talks on Horizon Europe or relegate Switzerland to the same status as unassociated countries like the United States.
Even if Switzerland does successfully negotiate full membership in Horizon Europe, it could still be blocked from parts of the program. The European Commission in March proposed restricting non-EU members’ access to dozens of quantum computing and space projects, even if they have association deals. A majority of members states, including Germany, oppose that move and subsequent drafts with only slightly watered-down restrictions have not placated them.
Last month, the opposing countries said they were unwilling to sign off on the part of Horizon Europe that contains the restrictions—a €15.5 billion budget for “digital, industry, and space.” A meeting on Wednesday failed to end the standoff; another is scheduled for June.