“Scientific collaboration before politics”: this is the watchword of Stick to Science, an initiative calling for the rapid reintegration of Switzerland and the United Kingdom into the European Research Area. More than a hundred prominent individuals have already signed the petition on behalf of universities, research funding bodies and major European academic institutions.
The initiative stresses how important it is for the continent of Europe to keep research and innovation open so that it can benefit from the contributions made by Switzerland and the United Kingdom, two major countries in international science. Global scientific collaboration is necessary in order to meet the major challenges facing society, from pandemics and food security through to climate change. “Science and education must not be sacrificed for political reasons,” declares Michael Hengartner, President of the ETH Board and co-initiator of Stick to Science.
Switzerland’s relations with the European Union (EU) seem to have stalled, especially its reintegration into the Horizon Europe research and innovation programme. Can an online petition really influence opinion in Brussels and Bern?
Yes, I’m sure it can. There has been a swift response to our appeal from a large number of European countries. Scientific cooperation is of indisputable benefit to all parties, including the European Union (EU), and the latter will be stronger if countries both inside and outside its borders collaborate intensively. The value of such collaboration is obvious, both scientifically and politically. The Member States of the EU will have this message at the forefront of their minds when opportunities open up once again, particularly if it is being spread by their own countries’ scientific institutions.
The Stick to Science campaign calls on the authorities to distinguish between politics and scientific collaboration, but the EU has repeatedly stated that Horizon Europe requires a political solution with Switzerland...
It is clear that Switzerland needs to overcome this political challenge with the EU. However, our campaign emphasises that issues such as science and education go far beyond the EU framework and must not be sacrificed for political reasons. Take Erasmus, for example: exchanges for university students, or between academic personnel, have contributed significantly to establishing a sense of European identity in all countries of the continent. The exclusion of Switzerland and the United Kingdom from Horizon Europe is a political decision which causes collateral damage not only to our two countries but also to the EU.
The initiative brings together the Swiss and British science communities, but our two countries have very different relationships with the EU – the United Kingdom could even see itself reintegrated soon if it can settle the Irish border question. Might this have a negative impact on the campaign?
Our two countries are on very different paths politically, but we are very close to each other scientifically. The vision defended by the initiative is resolutely European. Naturally, I hope that the United Kingdom will soon regain its place in the European scientific community. If that happens, I don't think our British friends would stop supporting international collaboration, since its importance is independent of specific political situations.
Would it be necessary to go through the Member States, including those in central and eastern Europe, rather than Brussels?
It will indeed be important to win over the ministries of foreign or European affairs in the Member States. There is already strong support for an association between Switzerland and the United Kingdom among the ministries responsible for education and research. However, we are not pursuing a political strategy. Our goal is to communicate the consequences of the political choices very clearly. The first goal is to ensure that our message is passed on by the leading academic institutions and innovation bodies in the Member States. Where central and eastern Europe are concerned, it is clear that the Swiss institutions will continue to develop partnerships bilaterally, as they do with the other EU countries. The Federal Institutes of Technology, for example, are helping to set up an artificial intelligence research institution in Bulgaria. Relationships of this kind constitute important partnerships.
Can you comprehend why countries such as Turkey and Georgia – soon to be joined by Tunisia – are already associated with Horizon Europe?
This is a positive development. Science is a means of building bridges with countries we’d like to get to know better, so we can shape the future together in accordance with shared values. This is the essence of scientific diplomacy.
There is increasingly strong support from other countries for reintegrating Switzerland into the European Research Area. Is the academic community defending its interests more vigorously?
I think it is. The scientific community used to have a tendency to keep its distance from politics. It received an abrupt wake-up call in 2014 after the immigration initiative and Switzerland's exclusion from Horizon 2020. Since then, we have been pursuing a more intensive outreach strategy. I hope this will contribute to finding solutions.