Division in Science is a luxury Europe cannot afford
Over the past few years, European leaders have begun to see the strategic necessity of investing in science. The pandemic, growing geopolitical tensions, and the sheer urgency of the climate crisis make it imperative that Europe’s scientists develop new solutions across the disciplinary spectrum. Excluding a major science powerhouse like Switzerland from associating with Horizon Europe is contrary to the EU’s political, strategic and economic – let alone scientific – interests.
The EU is – rightly – invested in the green and digital transformations. It is trying to set a global trend with its ambitious climate targets. And it is committed to Europe’s leadership in new fields like artificial intelligence and deep-tech transformation. But for this to happen Europe must – at the very least – be competitive globally in research. At a time when the US and China are investing massively in digital research, it is a political and economic necessity for Europe to harness its scientific strength, not divide it.
It is critical to collaborate across Europe. This need is reinforced by the fact that most European countries persistently fail to meet their own commitment to spend 3% of GDP on research and innovation. Through Horizon Europe we have a unique programme to foster cross-border collaboration. If Europe is not the top spender in R&I globally, it must at least maximise the potential for scientific cooperation.
But this only works if easy collaboration is facilitated among all of Europe’s top science players. Switzerland is a small country, but it hosts some of the world’s best universities and research institutes. The EU ignores this at its scientific, economic and strategic peril.
The key disagreement between the EU and Switzerland, which currently blocks Horizon Europe association, is over the replacement of over 120 bilateral agreements with a single, overarching framework agreement. The disagreement affects important issues like the powers of the European Court of Justice, and these must clearly be resolved.
But until a new agreement is found, the bilateral agreements continue to stand. And they cover Swiss-EU relations in great detail. They are not perfect. But taken together, they codify a political and economic relationship that is far deeper than the relationship enjoyed between the EU and any of the countries currently associated to Horizon Europe, outside the EEA. There is simply no basis for continued Swiss non-association to Horizon Europe.
For strategically important subjects like artificial Intelligence and deep tech, the EU needs reliable and trusted partners. They exist through the EEA, but also through Switzerland. According to the Times Higher World Subject rankings, two of the world’s top 20 universities in computer sciences are in Switzerland. None are in the EU. This is similar for other fields. The quality of Swiss science can be measured in many ways, beyond rankings. The point remains: If the EU wants to be world leading in strategic domains, it must keep its outstanding scientific partners in Switzerland as close as it possibly can.
Science is about collaboration. Amongst researchers, the case for Swiss association to Horizon Europe has been uncontested. But even more urgent is the political case. In Horizon Europe, the EU has created an outstanding research programme that enables it to punch above its weight on a global scientific stage. Without the closest possible Swiss collaboration, the capacity of EU science to support the Union’s strategic ambitions, including its ecological and digital transformations, is severely diminished.
Swiss association to Horizon Europe must happen as soon as possible. It’s politics, pure and simple.