Switzerland’s full association is indispensable
The following interview with Vice President Research Elisabeth Stark (UZH) and Vice President for Research Detlef Günther (ETH Zurich) regarding Switzerland‘s association to EU‘s Research Framework Programme Horizon Europe was finalised at the end of June.
However, the situation changed after this edition was printed and the European Commission informed the State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation (SERI) that Switzerland will be treated as a non-associated third country regarding the submission of research projects for Horizon Europe as well as for related programmes and initiatives. This status may be changed at any given time; at the moment, however, it applies to all calls for proposals in 2021.
Editorial Team Science Stories
Why Switzerland has to be fully associated to the EU Research Framework Programme Horizon Europe despite the missing Institutional Framework Agreement. An interview by Rolf Probala with Elisabeth Stark, Vice President Research of the University of Zurich, and Detlef Günther, Vice President for Research of ETH Zurich.
Switzerland has participated in the EU Research Framework Programmes for more than thirty years. What is their significance for your university?
Elisabeth Stark (ES): They are very significant. Roughly one fifth of third-party funding we raise from public funding sources comes from EU programmes. However, almost more important than these funds are the reputation of the ERC Grants for excellent individual research and the networking in large collaborative projects that are pivotal prerequisites for our researchers to play in the international research league.
Detlef Günther (DG): I fully agree. The number of ERC Grants we have received over the past years is our striking argument during the recruitment process. The scientists we wish to recruit immediately ask about it and they also want to know whether they would be able to continue applying for ERC Grants.
What is the significance of Horizon Europe for your research strategy?
DG: We are a technical university; hence, besides the first pillar of the programme the third pillar called «Innovative Europe» is very important for us. What is more, cybersecurity, data science and open data are topics that we are only capable of addressing properly in their overall complexity with international collaborations. The entire European cloud computing is another major topic for which we must connect ourselves.
ES: The pillar «Innovative Europe» is highly important for the University of Zurich as well. In the area of life sciences with the translational institutions which we operate jointly with ETH Zurich we are very successful in developing technologies and products from research results and introducing them as innovations to society. However, not everything should be looked at from the «applied» perspective. Horizon Europe also aims at promoting answers to relevant social issues. In my opinion, the first pillar «Excellent Science» is the most important one for humanities research, starting with the promotion of young talents with the Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowships across the entire range to the ERC Grants. The money is accompanied by research time, which is the true currency if you work on a monograph, for example, or reflect fundamentally on specific issues. In addition, an ERC Grant signifies the highest scientific recognition that can be achieved in many disciplines, which, in turn, attracts students.
Which disadvantages are we facing should Switzerland not be fully associated to Horizon Europe?
DG: We could no longer comprehensively participate in the research programmes and could no longer coordinate EU-funded research projects. Let’s assume ETH Zurich would be excluded from the research field of quantum computing even though we are its idea provider and expert in fundamental research: this would cause severe damage, not only for us but for the development of European quantum computing as a whole. Or, looking at the second pillar «Global Challenges and European Industrial Competitiveness»: we will not be able to meet these challenges to a greater degree if we do not address them in a pan-European attempt. We will also not be able to develop an energy concept for Europe without Switzerland being a part of it. Especially in this area of research networking, visibility and contacts are essential.
ES: We need the European funding instruments and networks to further develop our strengths. I am worried about the EU’s alarming tendency to preferably exclude Switzerland and other states that are not EU member states from the intra-European exchange. The status as a third country instead of full association of Horizon Europe would be extremely bitter.
DG: At one point, the EU would have to reconsider its definition of the term «excellence» if it excludes Great Britain, Israel and Switzerland.
How can you influence and convince the politics in Bern and Brussels of the necessity of a full association?
DG: We mobilise our alliances within the EU, and I am pleasantly surprised to learn that Germany explicitly supports our concerns and also declared so in Brussels. We therefore try to get the national and international scientific community to aim at ensuring the participation of every country in Horizon Europe. And we point out that Switzerland’s participation in EU research programmes such as Horizon Europe is regulated in the Bilateral Agreements of 2002. We are hence not dealing with market access questions and the association is not connected to the Institutional Framework Agreement.
ES: We, too, use our international networks to explain to the scientific community that there is no connection between the access to EU research programmes and the Institutional Framework Agreement and we emphasise the consequences of us not being fully associated participants. Hereby, the strategic partnership with Geneva is a great benefit. The Universities of Zurich and Geneva are well embedded within the League of European Research Universities (LERU). When I took up office as Vice President Research in February, I was contacted immediately by Brigitte Galliot, my equivalent in Geneva. Together, we phrased a plea for support addressed to LERU which was very well received and forwarded.
Horizon Europe ends in 2027. What are your wishes and visions in terms of research cooperation for the time thereafter?
ES: With our own internal research funding programmes and the SNSF, we have been focusing for some time on promoting interdisciplinarity and adapting an accompanying, critical reflection of research. We are very successful in this. A beautiful example thereof is the research work of the theologian Konrad Schmid as well as our five strategic University Research Priority Programs (URPP), which highlight for example our excellent interdisciplinary research on the entire life span. I would like to further expand this. My second wish is for more creativity in the promotion of young talents. There are excellent international exchange programmes and our postdocs are able to position themselves ideally. But we should think about how to establish a best practice exchange in cooperation with individual universities to approach the future of a sustainable academic promotion of young scientists.
DG: It would be a visionary success if the EU would connect its Research Framework Programmes even more broadly in the future and make them the global research programme of the future. Based on our experiences with the pandemic we now know that global problems can only be solved globally. This vision would mean that the many research networks existing all over the world would henceforth participate also formally in the EU’s research programmes. The next Research Framework Programme as of 2028 could then be called Horizon Global.