Swiss struggles signal a difficult voyage to alternative Horizon

Castaway from EU programme must paddle harder to keep up and remain an enticing partner for the future, says university leader 

December 17, 2021
Mountaineers in Switzerland illustrating article about difficulty in associating to European research funding schemes
Source: Alamy

For university sectors that find themselves locked outside the European Union’s research funding system, it is the loss of highly prestigious European Research Council grants that is felt most keenly.

So it is little surprise that the most powerful outcasts – Switzerland and soon, perhaps, the UK – have looked to replicate ERC programmes at a domestic level.

The first replacement call in Switzerland’s most recent round of exclusion from the Horizon programmes, mimicking the ERC’s advanced grants and aimed at world-class laboratory leaders, closed on 1 December with 230 applications – more than double the country’s typical win tally from the Brussels-based original.

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So, with the UK considering setting up a new “Discovery Fund” whether or not it eventually joins the latest EU scheme, Horizon Europe, what lessons can be learned from attempts to recreate the ERC at a country level?

“I think people had probably completely underestimated the response,” said Irene Knüsel, the head of division at the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF), referring to the number of applications.

“Several, I think, thought, ‘I [will] apply because I have little chance at the ERC level, but here in Switzerland I [will] get SFr2.5 million [£2 million].’ But now with so many different researchers, the success rate will certainly be lower than what they had in the past.” 

Switzerland’s exclusion from Horizon Europe followed the collapse of broader talks on an “institutional framework agreement” between Bern and Brussels earlier this year. For the country’s universities, while the effort to replicate EU programmes is welcome, it is likely to prove a substandard replacement.

Countries such as Switzerland and the UK traditionally punched above their weight in terms of winning competitive grants from the ERC, and university leaders highlight that the cross-border research collaborations fostered by participation in such programmes are in many ways just as important as the funding that is secured.

“It’s really a challenge to maintain the high level of competitiveness of our country,” said Yves Flückiger, rector of the University of Geneva and head of the Rectors’ Conference of Swiss Universities, known as Swissuniversities.

“It’s why I’m trying to convince our authorities that we need to put [in] a little bit more money just to keep this level of competitiveness, and just replacing the actions of Horizon Europe programme is not enough.”

Professor Flückiger’s concerns come from experience. In 2014 a vote to end the free movement of EU citizens got Switzerland temporarily ejected from what was then the recently launched Horizon 2020 programme, with Swiss participation dropping from 3.2 per cent in the predecessor scheme to just 1.8 per cent up to July 2015, before rising to 2.8 per cent by Horizon 2020’s close.

Nevertheless, the Swiss are trying their best. Dr Knüsel said that the SNSF had copied the latest ERC call documents. “The templates that we uploaded on our website are in principle the same as you would have if you downloaded from the ERC…the information is exactly the same,” she said. 

And while the steering committee for Switzerland’s advanced grants comprises ERC veterans based in the country, evaluators for the applications themselves must be from further afield.

“That’s the mix: we have the national experts who know the ERC, but we do not want to have them directly evaluating the proposals, so this will be done with the international panel members and experts,” said Dr Knüsel.

Applicants to Switzerland’s 2021 call said that the match was good. Marie Besse, head of the laboratory of prehistoric archaeology and anthropology at the University of Geneva, who applied for an ERC advanced grant in 2016, said that the Swiss application process was “exactly the same” apart from “some differences concerning the budget”. But she added: “I strongly regret not to have the opportunity to apply for ERC advanced grants. It’s a label for excellence.”

Professor Flückiger agreed. “A national programme cannot really replace fully a selection at the level of Europe, that’s the main problem. It’s a problem of competition,” he said.

He continued that, while Switzerland must keep trying to join Horizon Europe, complementary objectives, such as forging stronger ties with researchers in the UK and US, could help this effort.

“It’s some kind of strategic attitude maybe, just to say to European friends, ‘Look, many people are knocking on our door, and we’ll have to join them or develop collaboration with others because we’re in a difficult situation with Europe,’” Professor Flückiger said.

For now, Swiss researchers can only hope that their homegrown alternative to ERC will keep things ticking over until the two sides can strike a deal.

“The probability that we will join the programme next year is really low, in comparison with the UK, and I’m afraid that the Swiss politicians will wait [until] the election of 2023 before we try to move in any direction with Europe,” Professor Flückiger said.


Print headline: Swiss struggles signal rocky path to alternative Horizon

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