My call to stick to science

For Didier Queloz, excellent research requires international networks and know-how. He calls on politicians to admit British and Swiss scientists to Horizon Europe.
Didier Queloz, Professor of Physics at ETH Zurich and Nobel Laureate in Physics 2019. (Photo: ETH Zurich)

When the UK and EU defined the terms of their new relationship in the Trade and Co-operation Agreement following Brexit, it included a mutual commitment to the UK joining Europe’s flagship research and innovation programme, Horizon Europe. More than a year later, the agreement has yet to be signed. UK-based researchers who applied for grants or formed part of Europe-wide research teams in the expectation that the finalisation of this agreement was a formality now find that they cannot accept the grants they have won unless they move away from the UK.

Swiss researchers find themselves in a similar position, albeit for different reasons (see ETH-News). After negotiations on an institutional framework agreement failed last May, the EU Commission suspended Switzerland’s association to Horizon Europe until further notice.

In both cases, countries that have particularly strong research systems and that have been part of these programmes for decades are locked out because of ongoing and intractable disputes with the Commission. Put bluntly, politicians have decided to use participation in this scientific programme as a bargaining chip in wider negotiations.

A game where everyone loses

We risk destroying a fantastic tool that the EU has spent decades developing by excluding two of the biggest players in the global research arena for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with the programme itself. The tragedy is that this is such a short-sighted perspective. There can be no question at all that it is in our mutual best interest to ensure that the best scientists can work across geographical boundaries.

Advances in my own field are impossible without a collective effort, bringing together large research teams with complementary expertise. When working at the forefront of new knowledge like, for example, my research activities on Life in the Universe, resources and expertise are rare and precious. If you want to succeed, you simply must rely on international networks, talent and access to joint facilities.

Long-term interest vs short-term gain

Perhaps, it is inevitable that it should be this way. While scientific discovery is a long-term endeavour, politics is driven by short-term pressures and is adversarial by nature. Decisions are shaped by today’s crisis, tomorrow’s election and have winners and losers.

France, which holds the presidency of the Council of the EU, is facing elections in a few months’ time. The European Commission knows that negotiation involves sticks and carrots. The crisis in Ukraine occupies all of us. Meanwhile, the UK is consumed with its own political crisis, while Switzerland is just trying to pave its way out of the pandemic.

«I ask everybody involved to stop using scientific
collaboration as a bargaining chip and allow our researchers back into Horizon Europe as soon as possible –
everyone would benefit.»     
Didier Queloz

Nonetheless, I hope politicians will pause for a moment when they hear the collective howl of protest issued by the scientific leadership of Europe, expressed through the Stick to Science campaign, launched this week. From all parts of Europe, from universities, research institutes, networks and individuals, the call is clear – all parties should put politics aside and finalise the agreements that will unlock the participation of the UK and Switzerland in Horizon Europe.

Do the right thing        

As a scientist holding posts both at the University of Cambridge and ETH Zurich, I recognise that I am conflicted. But, approaching 60, this decision won’t affect my career very much. I am not batting for myself; I’m batting for the future generation of scientists who will be held back by this failure of politics.

If this goes on, and the UK and Switzerland walk away from the goal of association, the Horizon budget will be lower. There will be fewer opportunities for young career scientists to spend time in our great universities and they’ll find new hurdles in their way when they want to include Swiss and UK colleagues in their project teams.   

Right now, politicians are doing the thing that makes sense to them. If you have a bargaining chip, you don’t give it away lightly. But from any other perspective it makes no sense at all.

So, I have a simple request: stop using scientific collaboration as a bargaining chip and finalise the Horizon Europe association agreements to which you have already agreed. This would bring the best for all of us – Europe, the UK and Switzerland. Do the right thing, not what is politically expedient. I hope it is not too late.

This contribution first appeared in the Financial Times.