The UK and Switzerland — two scientific powerhouses excluded from the EU’s €96bn Horizon Europe funding programme for political reasons — will sign an agreement on Thursday to strengthen bilateral co-operation in research and innovation.
The memorandum of understanding is set to expand UK-Swiss partnerships over a wide range of subjects from quantum technology to life sciences, space and nuclear fusion.
“It is a clear political signal by our governments to the scientific community and funding agencies that we want to invest in more joint projects,” said Markus Leitner, Swiss ambassador in London. “We are pushing international collaboration wherever we can get it.”
The two governments maintain that the EU has blocked their membership of Horizon Europe because of political disputes with Brussels — the post-Brexit dispute focused on the status of Northern Ireland in the UK’s case and Switzerland’s disagreement with the bloc over closer ties.
Both countries, which have played prominent roles in previous EU science programmes, remain keen to join Horizon as associate members. George Freeman, UK science minister, who will sign the agreement with his Swiss counterpart Guy Parmelin, said if Brussels continued to block access the UK would “take the opportunity to do more globally — within Europe and beyond.”
Exclusion from associate membership of Horizon is harming science in both countries. “We have seen some 15 per cent of top European professors leaving the UK,” said Freeman.
Swiss public spending on R&D in 2021 was 16 per cent lower than in 2019, the Federal Statistical Office said. The fall was due mainly to the country’s forced departure from Horizon.
The loss of British and Swiss collaboration is also damaging European science as whole. Researchers across the continent have set up the Stick to Science campaign in an effort to change the EU’s mind.
“Nine of the ten best universities in Europe are in the UK or Switzerland,” said Leitner, citing the QS World university rankings.
Under the agreement the two countries’ main public funding agencies, UK Research and Innovation and the Swiss National Science Foundation, will invest in joint projects in fields that include bioscience and medicine, computing and artificial intelligence, and space.
Next year Switzerland will launch a quantum research initiative and it sees the UK as a natural partner. Freeman said that another shared initiative the two countries could explore would be in financing and insuring the global space economy, with hubs in London and Zurich.
The memorandum of understanding will build on an extensive base of existing collaboration. The UK is already Switzerland’s third most important research partner; the SNSF has funded 1,100 projects with British participants over the past five years.
Freeman suggested the British government’s patience with Brussels would soon run out. “With a new prime minister and government, there is a moment when we should see whether the EU will remove its block but unless there is rapid movement we need to move quickly to repair the damage and set up an international Plan B.”
But there was unlikely to be a single overarching replacement programme should the UK fail to overturn the block on Horizon membership, Freeman said. The money set aside for Horizon — £15bn over seven years — may instead support a range of international activities: bilateral agreements; schemes to attract more international research talent to the UK; and multinational partnerships in specific areas.
One example might be a global partnership in polar research, involving the British Antarctic Survey and counterparts in countries such as Norway, Chile and New Zealand, Freeman added. Another might focus on agricultural technology with participants from countries in the developing world.