Swiss universities urge action after Horizon Europe blow

Following the European Union’s announcement that Switzerland has been relegated to third country status in its Horizon Europe programme, the president of Swissuniversities, Yves Flückiger, has called for the Swiss Federal Council and parliament to work quickly to “stabilise relations” and achieve full association as soon as possible.

“International cooperation is a prerequisite for innovation and excellence. Today’s decisions have an impact on Switzerland’s future attractiveness and competitiveness and on its top international position in research,” Flückiger wrote on

His call follows the announcement on 14 July that researchers in Switzerland have been blocked from applying for individual grants in future calls from the European Research Council (ERC), Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions and the European Innovation Council, following an EU decision to relegate Switzerland to non-associated third country status in the €95 billion (US$125 billion) Horizon Europe research and innovation programme for 2021-27.

The decision is the outcome of a breakdown in negotiations over Switzerland’s bid to achieve full association status in Horizon Europe, which the Swiss Federal Council says remains its aim even though it broke off talks more than a month ago.

In a previous statement on 30 June, Swissuniversities warned that “today, research is hostage to a political game”, and urged the Federal Council to sort out the problem.

According to Science|Business, relations between Switzerland and the EU are “at an all-time low over rows over Swiss payments to the EU cohesion fund and negotiations on the future shape of the relationship between the two”, and the European Commission has said all exploratory talks regarding the association of Switzerland to the next generation of EU programmes are currently on hold.

However, Flückiger, who is also rector of the University of Geneva, said the European Commission’s decision means Swiss research is losing equal access to key elements of “the most important international research network”, with the consequence that researchers from Switzerland will no longer be able to coordinate projects and top talent will look for jobs in other countries.

“In the last programme, Horizon 2020 (2014-2020), Swiss scientists coordinated 1,185 projects, ie 3.9% of the total. Coordinating a project means helping to set the future priorities of European research and thus shaping the development of the research and innovation area on a continental scale,” he wrote for, the international unit of the Swiss Broadcasting Company on 16 July.

“Researchers in Switzerland cannot participate in the Marie Sklodowska-Curie Actions and European Innovation Council, and they can no longer obtain ERC grants from the European Research Council. In the last programme, these highly competitive grants represented 40% of the total European funding granted to Switzerland, ie more than CHF1 billion (US$1.1 billion).”

He also said that access to European programmes enables Switzerland to attract the best talents and “without an association, these researchers will leave Switzerland to settle in other European countries or they will not come to our country if they receive an ERC grant”.

The absence of an association also restricts the access of young people in training to the European research network in a context of student mobility already being weakened through Switzerland no longer being associated with Erasmus+, the EU’s student and staff study and exchange programme, he warned.

Most important scientific partners

Flückiger said universities and research organisations in the EU are Switzerland's most important scientific partners, well ahead of the United States or Asia. In addition, the EU research programmes offer a unique opportunity for universities, industry and SMEs to cooperate internationally.

“There is no national or bilateral alternative to the cooperation within Horizon Europe.”

The European Commission informed Switzerland’s State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation (SERI) on 12 July that Switzerland is to have the status of a non-associated third country for all calls for proposals in 2021.

SERI said the Federal Council continues to seek association to Horizon Europe, but it conceded that negotiations between Switzerland and the European Union in this regard are not currently under way.

“With regard to a future association of Switzerland to Horizon Europe, the Commission names as a condition the payment of the second enlargement contribution and the conclusion of a so-called ‘Specific Agreement’, which regulates Switzerland's participation in EU programmes and is already mentioned in Switzerland's negotiation mandate.

“In addition, the Commission places the start of negotiations in the context of overall relations between Switzerland and the EU.”

World’s largest programme

Horizon Europe is the largest research and innovation funding programme in the world.

Together with the temporary economic stimulus package NextGenerationEU, it aims to promote the green and digital transformation across Europe.

Switzerland was fully associated to the predecessor programme Horizon 2020 and is seeking the same status for Horizon Europe and its related programmes and activities (Euratom programme, ITER and Digital Europe Programme).

According to SERI, even as a non-associated third country, researchers in Switzerland can still participate in Horizon Europe and its related programmes and initiatives and apply for the programme components and funding instruments open to them.
But they do not generally receive funding for their project costs from the European Commission.

“Wherever participation is possible, funding is provided by SERI. Parliament has already approved CHF6.15 billion in funding for Swiss participation in the Horizon package, as well as the possibility of direct funding for researchers in Switzerland.”

SERI said for all calls in 2021 for which researchers and innovators from Switzerland have no possibilities to make submissions or evaluations, SERI is preparing proposals for suitable transitional measures as part of the federal credit and budget process. “If necessary, the Federal Council will also consider long-term replacement measures in due course.”

EU leaders are expected to discuss the issue in the autumn, but negotiations for Swiss participation in Erasmus+ have not been announced.

Swissuniversities said Switzerland has always contributed to European science, even before the European Union existed. As early as 1954, it took part in the creation of CERN in Geneva. In 1975, it was one of the founding members of the European Space Agency.

Since 1987, it has participated as a third country in the European research framework programmes, which it joined as an associated country in 2004. Since then, the association has been renegotiated for each generation of programmes until the current impasse over Horizon Europe 2021-2027.

However, Switzerland was frozen out of Horizon 2020 temporarily following a 2014 referendum in Switzerland which limited free movement of EU citizens into Switzerland by introducing immigration quotas for them. A solution was found but Switzerland remains excluded from Erasmus+.

Science|Business reported last year that Swiss researchers had won “a whopping 676 ERC grants”, highlighting the important role that Swiss universities play in European research and that not just Swiss but also European research will lose out from Switzerland participating only as a third country.