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Excluding Switzerland from EU R&D is a strategic error


Country’s ejection from Horizon Europe threatens continent’s presence in future industries, says Tristan Maillard

Since May 2021, Switzerland has not been associated with the EU’s Horizon Europe research and innovation programme. For researchers, this means being shut out of the European Research Council and no longer being able to lead collaborative projects. For Swiss companies, it means being denied access to the European Innovation Council, and even to strategic markets such as the quantum communication infrastructure.

In response, the Swiss government has put in place several measures. For example, participation in collaborative projects with EU partners is still possible, thanks to direct funding for Swiss research institutions. The national innovation funding agency, Innosuisse, has made equivalent funding available for startups.

At the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL), we monitor the impact of political decisions and make our analyses public for transparency. We estimated that ending EU-Swiss research ties directly endangered 600 jobs at the institute, mostly PhD students, postdocs and technicians. Thankfully, the transitional measures have, for the most part, made it possible to delay the direct impact of non-association to Horizon on universities and companies; for example, EPFL has been able to temporarily maintain its level of funding from European projects. So far, no redundancies have been necessary.

Association is not only about money, though. More important still, it is about a common culture and the continent’s ability to build a common prosperity.

On this front, the news is bad. EPFL’s monitoring shows that the number of collaborations with EU partners has decreased. The institute’s researchers are invited less and less to join European networks, even if funding for the Swiss arm of the collaboration is guaranteed. In 2022, there was a 20 per cent drop in collaborative projects submitted to Horizon Europe with EPFL participation.

From partner to competitor

Science is deeply collaborative. It is one of the fields that creates the strongest links between people in different countries; we often speak of a community of researchers that transcends borders. European countries understood this in 1954 when they created the nuclear research laboratory, Cern. 

Working together, knowledge is created more quickly. At a time of global challenges, a decline in collaboration is worrying.

But European programmes are not just about knowledge creation. Science is a critical part of the innovation ecosystem, and ultimately of Europe’s prosperity.

As worrying as the fall in collaboration, then, is our finding that, in 2022, the European Commission refused to fund at least two Horizon Europe projects for quantum technologies that included EPFL researchers. According to the Commission, the presence of a Swiss partner would have endangered “Europe’s strategic autonomy”.

Where there are economic interests, there is competition. The rejection of these projects shows that, in the Commission’s eyes, Switzerland is moving from being a partner to a competitor.

But does Switzerland really represent a risk to the EU in strategic technologies such as quantum? Is Europe not aiming at the wrong target here?

There is a global race in quantum technologies that is being contested by technology heavyweights in both the public and private sectors. The winner may take all.

In the United States, Google’s parent company, Alphabet, has announced plans for a commercial quantum computer by 2029; Microsoft, Amazon and IBM are investing heavily in these technologies. China is spending the equivalent of $10 billion (€9bn) to create a national centre for quantum technologies, among other initiatives.

Europe has a strong card to play in quantum science if it plays it together with Switzerland. A recent study by the Swiss State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation shows that the four most impactful countries in terms of basic quantum research are Switzerland, Germany, Austria and the UK.

Swiss companies such as ID Quantique and Ligentec are developing unique technologies that would keep Europe at the forefront of industrial innovation. Severing Switzerland’s quantum research and innovation from wider European efforts would weaken the continent in this field.

The decision not to associate Switzerland to European programmes stems from major political disagreements between the EU and Switzerland on the single market, sovereignty and the protection of salaries. Against such concerns, loss of research ties could be seen as a minor injury. But what is at stake is a continuing European presence in the industries of the future. 

The continent missed the turning point of digitalisation, with the result that American companies dominate. Let us not miss the next turning point.

Tristan Maillard is secretary-general of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL) 

This article also appeared in Research Europe