’The whole of Switzerland is losing out’

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(llustration: Oculus Illustration)
(llustration: Oculus Illustration)

No access to prestigious grants. Limited opportunities to have a say in European research policy. Less interest from partners and researchers. These are just some of the ways in which ETH Zurich and Switzerland as a whole are being affected by the country’s exclusion from the Horizon Europe programme.

When the Swiss Federal Council announced to the media on 26 May that it was pulling out of negotiations on a framework agreement with the European Union, Sofia Karakostas and Agatha Keller knew that the coming months would be very challenging indeed. The two women run EU GrantsAccess, a joint operation between ETH Zurich and the University of Zurich that provides advice on international funding issues. Karakostas and Keller help researchers obtain third-party funding from international sources. But in the wake of the Federal Council’s decision, Switzerland now risks being excluded from the world’s largest and most important funding scheme: the European Union’s Horizon Europe programme. Besides missing out on EU subsidies worth tens of millions, Switzerland will be losing its ability to have a say in what European research should be focusing on, thereby reducing the appeal of collaboration with Swiss universities.

Keller and Karakostas are generally unflappable types: after all, they have managed EU GrantsAccess for more than 20 years, and in 2014 they skilfully navigated another difficult period after Switzerland voted in favour of an initiative against mass immigration. This decision triggered the first instance of the EU’s imposition of a ban on Switzerland’s submission of project proposals in its Horizon programme. In mid-June, Keller and Karakostas were initially optimistic, informing researchers that the failed framework agreement would not affect Switzerland’s Horizon status for the time being. Just a few days later, however, things looked very different following the European Commission’s publication of a document explicitly stating that Switzerland would be treated as a non-associated third country for research project submissions. But what does this decision mean specifically for researchers, for ETH as an institution and for Switzerland - a country that prides itself on its status as a centre of research?

No longer competing with the best

"This is probably going to hit young researchers at Swiss universities hardest, because they won’t be able to apply for the coveted European grants," explains Nicola Spaldin, Professor of Materials Theory at ETH Zurich. Representing Switzerland on the European Research Council (ERC), where all aspects of European research policy are discussed, Spaldin knows the European research system better than most. In addition to numerous prizes, she has managed to secure two ERC grants herself. Both the Postdoctoral Fellowships in the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions programme and the ERC Starting Grants are important milestones in young researchers’ careers.

However, Spaldin is quick to point out that these grants are not just about the money. And even if Switzerland’s State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation (SERI) can replace the funds that normally come from Brussels, the situation is still fraught with major disadvantages. "It’s a bit like telling the Swiss Olympic Team that they can only compete in national competitions instead of the Tokyo Olympics. They might end up winning some prize money, but they won’t be competing with the best," she explains. "Researchers who don’t get a chance to apply for the most prestigious scholarships and projects will think twice about coming to Switzerland or could even leave."

Huge career disadvantages

Like many other postdoctoral students, Stefano Maffei’s main goal is to become a professor. After research visits to the UK and USA, the 34-year-old geophysicist has been back at ETH Zurich for just under three months. Maffei had applied for a Marie Sklodowska-Curie Postdoctoral Fellowship last year, but fell a few points short of succeeding. The EU Commission recommended that he modify a few things on his application and resubmit it - so this year should have been his chance.

Now, however, Maffei is no longer eligible. To resubmit his application, he would have to transfer to a university in the EU or an associated third country. For the next two years, the Italian-Swiss dual national will continue to be financed by ETH funds, but his future plans beyond that are uncertain. He could end up leaving Switzerland, or abandoning a career in science altogether.

Maffei’s biggest worry, however, is not the money - successful researchers like him have access to alternative, national funding schemes. What weighs more heavily on his mind is that he will be less competitive in the medium to long term. "A Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellowship would have been an ideal stepping stone to a professorship," he says. "It represents a concrete achievement that makes all the difference in appointment processes."

Less ETH influence

However, it is by no means only young researchers who are facing disadvantages: leading researchers such as ETH professor Domenico Giardini are also set to be heavily affected. The earthquake specialist has had an almost unparalleled influence on the face of European seismology: under his leadership, ETH has coordinated infrastructure projects worth millions in order to assess the risk of earthquakes more successfully. Also a Swiss-Italian dual national, Giardini explains the situation as follows: "The universities that coordinate large projects across the whole of Europe have a major say in the future of seismological research."

For universities to gain access to the latest data and attract the best minds, they have to play a leading role in groundbreaking projects like these. "If we lose this status," warns Giardini, "we also risk losing our top position in the rankings over the medium term." And Giardini is a person who knows what he is talking about - it is, after all, mainly thanks to him and his colleagues at the Department of Earth Sciences that ETH is the world leader in the field of geophysics, ahead of Oxford, Harvard and MIT.

Full association is essential

Decades of groundwork conducted by Swiss researchers in collaborative projects are now at risk because universities from non-associated third countries are no longer allowed to coordinate ERC projects. This unfortunate situation is perfectly illustrated by the Digital Twin project, which is aiming to create a highly accurate digital model of the Earth in order to simulate seismic risks and map climate development as accurately as possible. The EU Commission’s decision has resulted in ETH losing its role as project leader to a Spanish university. "And all we can do is watch from the sidelines as our university loses its influence and prestige," Giardini says.

"From ETH’s standpoint, Switzerland must participate as a fully associated country in Horizon Europe," stresses Detlef Günther, Vice President for Research at ETH Zurich. The largest research funding programme in the world cannot be replaced simply by alternative internal funding schemes, national programmes or bilateral agreements.

According to Günther, Switzerland’s exclusion not only jeopardises the recruitment of high-ranking researchers and other talented individuals in the long run, but also hinders cooperation with European partners in important research areas. "The competitive disadvantages we are facing and the lack of opportunities for networking could damage the reputation of Swiss universities and adversely affect their importance in international research. At the end of the day, the whole of Switzerland is losing out," concludes Günther.

As was the case back in 2014, when Switzerland and the EU agreed on partial association after several months, the ball is now in the politicians’ court. And until they have agreed on a solution, Sofia Karakostas, Agatha Keller and their team at EU GrantsAccess will probably face many more questions. But one thing is certain: if the politicians play ball, our researchers will once again be equipped to compete with the brightest minds in Europe.

This article appeared in the current ETH magazine "life".

Christoph Elhardt