|University of Zurich-Irchel|
Switzerland is no longer part of the
“Champions League” of European research. Scientists tell swissinfo.ch their
future is uncertain following the European Union’s decision to exclude Swiss
institutes from funding within its flagship research programme.
Marc Donath was about to send off his application for the funding of a large
diabetes study he wanted to coordinate between 22 centres in Europe and the
United States, when he learned that the future of his €5.9 million (CHF7.2
million) project was uncertain.
“I have applied but I’m not sure if my collaborative research project will be
approved,” said the head physician of Basel’s University Hospital.
“This is really the type of work we cannot do without international
collaboration because in a country the size of Switzerland we can never enrol
enough patients for such a large trial. And there is no other single institution
to finance such a large project.”
Switzerland cites its participation in the competitive EU framework programmes
as one of the driving forces behind its achievements in research and innovation.
Researchers at Swiss institutions have been very successful in securing EU
funding for their scientific projects, garnering an estimated €1.7 billion
(CHF2.1 billion) between 2007 and 2013. (See infobox)
But all this was thrown into turmoil when as a consequence of an
anti-immigration initiative – approved by voters in February – the European
Council excluded Switzerland as an associate member, suspending cooperation
between researchers from Swiss institutions and their European partners and
putting a hold on funding within Europe’s Horizon 2020 research programme.
Supported by the State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation, the
Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) swiftly set up a transitional measure,
offering researchers a temporary substitute for the prestigious European
Research Council (ERC) starting and consolidator grants.
“The highly competitive and international nature of research in Switzerland must
be safeguarded by specific measures until a new political agreement with the EU
is reached,” the government said. Because of this quick response many
disconcerted scientists are able to carry on – for now.
The head of SNSF’s Research Council, Martin Vetterli, warned these measures
only addressed the immediate situation and in the “medium and long-term it is
impossible to replace international competitiveness”.
Many grant applicants are still feeling at a loss. They had their timelines
protracted because of lower funding, making them lose their competitive edge and
– in worst cases – they had to scrap their projects entirely. But the main blow
is that European partners once again consider Switzerland a “third country” –
along with non-European states like Japan or the United States – making it much
harder to collaborate.
“The SNSF may have provided a back-up solution for funding, but we are no longer
part of the competition,” said Olivier Küttel, head of European public affairs
at the Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL).
“We are out of the Champions League,” he said, drawing an analogy between Swiss
researchers and English football teams, which were banned from European
competition following the Heysel Stadium disaster in 1985.
In a statement on Friday, Research Minister Johann Schneider-Ammann said
Switzerland’s “complete affiliation with Horizon 2020 remains a priority for the
“If politicians don’t find a solution soon, Swiss research partners will
increasingly be seen as a risk and there will be a brain drain at Swiss
universities,” warned Laure Ognois, head of research at the University of
Geneva. She said the reputation and image of Swiss research as well as the
confidence of researchers in the Swiss system would be “severely impacted”.
“Since the news, four out of 12 young researchers who were going to apply for
ERC grants – they incarnate the excellence of today and tomorrow – have already
left the University of Geneva,” she said.
Still, in response to the government’s back-up programme the SNSF received 145
applications for its CHF1.5 million starting grants worth a total of CHF219
million, in line with the 131 grant applications the ERC received from
Switzerland in 2013, the foundation said.
Unfortunately, securing an ERC grant is not just about money (they are worth up
to about €2.5 million each). They are also a distinction, a trophy or a label.
For young researchers especially, securing an ERC grant is important for their
careers, Küttel explains.
Shock and frustration
Dennis Gillingham, a chemistry professor at the University of Basel who
conducts research on how genetic information is regulated, had bet on the grant
to open doors. His initial reaction at the news was shock and frustration as he
is one of the researchers who just missed the opportunity to apply for an ERC
starting grant within seven years of receiving a PhD.
“The prestige associated with these grants has made them an important milestone
in obtaining permanent positions at European universities,” the Canadian
national explained. He may still apply for other EU grants over the coming years
but other applicants will have an edge.
“This was my last chance to apply for an early career ERC grant,” Gillingham
said. “For the starter grant, I was a big fish in a small pool. From now on I
will be a small fish in a large pool with much fiercer competition.”
Gillingham, like many who have come from abroad, is starting to doubt whether
Switzerland will remain the paradise for cutting-edge research it is today
thanks to government support, mechanisms to commercialise new discoveries and
the proximity to the drug industry. “If the rug can get pulled out from under
you at any time, then the best talents will go elsewhere.”
He is seconded by Christian Sengstag, research head at the University of Basel.
“Switzerland will become less attractive for researchers from abroad,” he
warned. “Top candidates will think twice before accepting a position in
Switzerland and foregoing an important source of third-party funding.”
Human Brain Project
Still, only applications to be filed in the spring 2014 are affected and not
projects already benefitting from EU funding. That is why the financing of the
flagship Human Brain Project is secured through 2016. But what about its future?
“We are concerned,” said project leader Henry Markram recently. “Horizon 2020 is
a key part of the funding of the Human Brain Project. We are right now in the
process of writing up the more elaborate plans for Horizon 2020. In the midst of
doing this there is the uncertainty whether the funding will continue.”
It wouldn’t be an option to take the project outside Switzerland, he notes.
“Switzerland is absolutely key to making the Human Brain Project happen.” Its
part includes amassing resources, simulation and piecing knowledge together. It
would not feasible to continue without Switzerland, he says.
If the Horizon 2020 problems are not solved by next year, the exclusion will
have “serious implications for the whole research landscape in Switzerland”,
Küttel said. “To be successful you don’t just need money, you need to cooperate
with the best.”