The UK and Switzerland must be admitted to Horizon Europe

Time is running out to strike a deal that will cement the continent’s scientific strength, says Jan Palmowski

February 8, 2022
A padlocked door with the EU flag on it
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The European Union, the UK and Switzerland have each articulated a clear vision of a future shaped by scientific transformation and cross-border collaboration. The European Commission aims to strengthen Europe’s strategic autonomy through its Horizon Europe programme, but also embrace collaborations “with as many countries as possible”. The UK government envisages the country becoming a “global science superpower”, which is “at the forefront of international collaborations”. And the Swiss government is clear that its country’s science is “of essence” internationally. But what are these commitments worth if these close neighbours – each scientific powerhouses in their own right – cannot even collaborate with each other? 

The EU has, for the past few decades, developed the most ambitious and transformative transnational research funding mechanism in the world. Currently, for the seven years of its operation, Horizon Europe has a budget of €95 billion (£80 billion, excluding additional payments from third countries that choose to associate. About €52 billion of this is spent on challenge-led collaborative research, and €13 billion on the European Research Council (ERC), which has become one of the world’s most successful funding bodies. Association of the UK and Switzerland would increase the budget by about 20 per cent. This would ensure unprecedented scale and ambition for European research tackling climate change, the digital transformation of our societies, and – lest we forget – the Covid-19 pandemic. 

By contrast, the failure to associate Switzerland and the UK would have the most severe consequences for European science. A recent article published in the British Medical Journal estimates that, prior to the pandemic, the European Commission was the biggest funder of the technology that led to the development of the Oxford AstraZeneca vaccine. The 2019 Nobel Prize winners Peter Ratcliffe (Cambridge), Michel Mayor (Geneva) and Didier Queloz (Geneva and Cambridge) have all attested to the critical importance of EU funding for their work. Funding for research of this quality, and the collaborations that enabled it, would be lost if the UK and Switzerland were unable to associate to Horizon Europe – which has already been running for more than a year.

It would be impossible for the UK and Switzerland to replace Horizon Europe with individual bilateral deals, which would all end up having different legal and financial rules. To be sure, the countries could develop their own national rival to the ERC. But, as Joël Mesot, president of ETH Zurich, recently noted, researchers are attracted not only by the amount of funding offered by the ERC but also by the European network it provides. There is unmatched value in Europe’s science powers collaborating as one.  

If researchers in neither the UK nor Switzerland could hold ERC grants or lead EU-funded collaborative projects, the global pre-eminence of European science – and that very much includes the EU – is at risk. In the final year of Horizon 2020, about 25 per cent of ERC grant holders were at Swiss or UK universities – seven of which are the only European universities in Times Higher Education’s latest global top 30.

How could the EU achieve strategic autonomy in artificial intelligence, for instance, if it cut off Europe’s major science region in this field, Southeast England? And if the EU wants to make Horizon Europe truly “open to the world”, how attractive will the funding programme be to countries such as Canada, Australia or New Zealand if it does not include Switzerland and the UK?

The hold-up to association, in both cases, is political. Swiss-EU discussions about a new framework agreement broke down last year. At this time, it is hard to detect a constructive, pragmatic push on either side to find a way out of the impasse. In the case of the UK, association is agreed – but we await its implementation as the EU and UK resolve major political disputes, particularly around Northern Ireland. 

These political difficulties must be resolved. But science cannot be made hostage to the resolution of other issues, important as they are. Switzerland and the UK are already putting alternative arrangements in place to compensate for the loss of potential EU funding. With every month that passes, there is a risk that temporary solutions become permanent. The damage to European science would be irreparable.

Europe’s leaders must prioritise the association of the UK and Switzerland, for deeply political reasons. Without it, our capacity to put our best minds together to tackle our common challenges would be severely undermined. Globally, we would punch well below our weight. And our politicians’ vision for future leadership based on scientific advantage would be undermined before it even started.

The science community should speak out loud and clear. That can begin with signing and amplifying the pan-European Stick to Science campaign, which launches today (@stick2science). We must urge European leaders to recognise the urgency of the UK and Switzerland’s association to Horizon Europe. Time is running out.

Jan Palmowski is secretary general of the Guild of European Research-Intensive Universities.

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