COLLABORATION

‘It’s not about the money’: Switzerland’s universities fear exclusion from EU R&D

SOURCE: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP
A change in Switzerland's government could threaten universities' ability to get EU funding.


By Emma Richards 

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Both sides will lose out if Switzerland are excluded from the European Union’s (EU) multi-billion-dollar research and development programme, Horizon Europe, warned the president of Switzerland’s top-ranked university.

“We have developed a very successful way to interact with the EU. We should be careful not to damage this special relationship. That would be a loss for both sides,” President of Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, ETH Zurich, Joël Mesot, told Science Business.

Mesot’s concern stems from the ongoing political uncertainty bubbling across a number of European nations. The recent boom support for populist parties, teamed with the turmoil of the Brexit referendum, has left the EU reluctant to negotiate of the Horizon Europe programme until upcoming elections in a number of countries have been decided.

The parliament fears if populist parties gain power, the relationship with the EU will be thrown into question as more right-wing parties follow the UK’s lead and push for independence from the union.

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While Switzerland is not an EU member, it has strong trade links and has long been an important feature in EU research projects.

The country has a general election coming up in October and, despite support for populist parties dropping, there is still a strong likelihood the results could disrupt those academic ties.

According to the latest Election Barometer, commissioned by the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation, support for the right-wing and anti-immigration Swiss People’s Party (SVP) is down 2.9 percent on 2015 levels.

Despite the drop, the party is still hovering at a high 26.5 percent support – more than enough to ensure the party remains the largest force in the national parliament.

If successful, SVP’s policies could threaten ETH Zurich’s thousands of research programmes currently being conducted with European institutions, says Mesot.

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Since 1992, ETH has received over CHF64 million (US$64 million) from the previous iteration of the Horizon Europe research fund, Horizon 2020. But the possible disruption of good relations goes far greater than just financial concern, Mesot stresses.

ETH counts over 9,000 research contacts around the world, with 61 percent of them in Europe. If shut out of EU programmes, “how would we rebuild all this? It’s just not feasible,” he said.

Breaking down ties will likely hinder Switzerland’s ability to access large data sets for studies. Mesot gives the example of medical research that requires large pools of data from patients across a large demographic cross-sector and population.

He also pointed to the collaborative necessity to maintain the development of collective infrastructure, such as Europe’s shared electricity grid. Going beyond just research, the R&D collaboration between EU and non-member states on grid management keeps the adjustments needed with the rise of renewable energy from causing too much disruption.

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This isn’t the first time Switzerland institutions have faced this risk. In 2014, with the referendum success of anti-immigration campaigners, the EU cut-off full Swiss membership to its Horizon 2020 R&D programme. The move effectively stopped its access to two-thirds of the €77 billion (US$87 billion) programme.

Swiss universities are hoping history doesn’t repeat itself with Horizon Europe.

The new fund was signed off in April and runs from 2021 to 2027. The agreement dictates the research and scientific landscape of the union’s 28 members and any other states that pay to join, directing the focus of research collaborations and public-private partnerships across the continent.

It supports thousands of projects that have changed the face of Europe’s R&D environment. But at the centre of these projects is collaboration. Collaboration between academia and industry, collaboration between government institutions and higher education. And between, of course, collaboration between countries.

With collaboration slowly becoming a dirty word in an increasingly nationalist Europe, the entire ethos behind the fund could be at risk.