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Quo vadis after exclusion from EU's Horizon Europe?

As Switzerland begins 2022 as a non-associated third country in Horizon Europe, the European Union's key research funding programme, Rector Christian Leumann makes a strong case for inclusion.

Author: Rector Christian Leumann

Where do we go from here? Leumann would like to know (Photo: Susanne Goldschmied/keystone)

It is a paradox that Switzerland, being geographically at the heart of Europe and culturally and economically strongly connected to the EU, should no longer be part of the European research network. By speaking to persons in Swiss politics or economy, one often hears the question on why not instead associate with countries outside the EU.

Very often these questions originate from a negative view of Europe’s capabilities to become a game changer in research and innovation in the future. Typically, the US and the southeast Asian countries, including China and India, are mentioned here as potential partners.

One of the strengths of the Swiss academic system is its openness and its strong connections worldwide, including all relevant countries. This is reflected by our academic staff, our PhDs and post-docs in whom the degree of internationality is close to or above the 50-per-cent level in many of our universities. Fact is, however, that there does not exist a similar network.

The Horizon Europe programme is with 95.5 billion EUR the largest financed, international research network in the world. Its instruments in funding basic research and innovation in a competitive way in all societally relevant fields respecting the freedom of academic research, committed to open science and inclusiveness are unparalleled. The same holds true for the student exchange programme Erasmus+.

Participation is essential for a small country like Switzerland being a big international player in science. Thus, there is no alternative with similar impact available.


If the exclusion of Switzerland from the European research network persists it will have severe negative consequences for the quality and the competitiveness of the Swiss academic system. These consequences will not be visible today or next year, but they will gradually become apparent over the next 10 years.

In the previous programme Horizon 2020, the University of Bern (UniBE), for example, has gained 175 projects (2014–2020) with a total financial volume of 120 million CHF. Amongst these projects were 37 ERC starting, consolidator or advanced grants, 66 Marie Sklodowska Curie grants as well as 72 collaboration projects. For many of the latter, we were the leading institution.

If this is compared to the total funding of UniBE by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) in the same period of time of 688 million CHF, this corresponds to 16.5% of total competitive funding for basic research.

Thus, it becomes evident that the financial loss is severe but will not be the game changer, given that the Swiss State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation and the SNSF will cover most of the financial losses by their projected back-up schemes.

Reputation loss

The real threat is the loss of reputation and attractiveness of the Swiss academia. Roughly half of all 12 Swiss universities are among the top 150 universities worldwide in the Times Higher Education/THE rankings or the Quacquarelli Symonds/QS rankings. These rankings parametrise not only scientific output and citations, but also international staff and scientific reputation.

If we are now excluded from the European research community, we will lose attractivity for foreign staff and partnership in collaborations. Thus, it will only be a question of time when this will be reflected negatively in the rankings.

Being excluded from the ERC programme will reduce the attractiveness of the research location Switzerland for the best European talents. Why should a researcher who earned a prestigious ERC starting, consolidator or advanced grant be attracted to Switzerland? Even if this researcher gets financial reimbursement by the SNSF, he or she will be excluded from other funding possibilities of the Horizon network.

And why should a young investigator be attracted to a Swiss University if he or she cannot apply for a Marie Sklodowska Curie grant? Especially for young investigators, this highly competitive reward is important for their future academic career.

The same is also true the other way round. Why should a Swiss young or advanced scientist remain in Switzerland if his or her career opportunities are brighter at the research-intensive European universities?

Student mobility

Being excluded from the Erasmus+ programme will also lead to a loss of attractiveness on the level of Bachelor and Master students. Already in Horizon 2020, Switzerland was excluded from this programme, but could still be associated via the Swiss-European Mobility Programme (SEMP). The mutual recognition of academic credits between European and Swiss institutions is at risk in the future, as the European academic system is constantly evolving its policy on university cooperation. In other words, the future of SEMP is not guaranteed at all.

The mobility of students, however, is important for their future professional careers. Swiss students can take advantage to become integrated in international scientific networks at the best European institutions and the European students have the possibility to become integrated in the Swiss research environment, becoming optimally prepared for an academic or professional career in Switzerland, thus alleviating the skilled workers shortage in the high-tech Swiss economic environment.

Fit for future

For ten years now, Switzerland is the Champion in the ranking of the global innovation index. This has been mainly achieved via high investments in research and development and with the high quality of Swiss universities attracting human capital. Why put this at risk by the exclusion of Switzerland from the world’s largest academic research and education network Horizon Europe?

The mutual political understanding between Switzerland and the EU is currently at odds, yet this understanding is necessary to establish long-lasting, stable relations. This, in turn, is needed to keep the Swiss academic system fit for the future challenge to maintain and even improve its scientific quality and competitiveness. Therefore, the only option for the Swiss academic system is to get associated to Horizon Europe as soon as possible. For this, to happen the political authorities are asked to provide the corresponding framework.

This excerpt is taken from 'Swiss Science: Quo Vadis after Exclusion from the European Framework Program?', originally published in CHIMIA International Journal of Chemistry.