Switzerland seeks a wider role for European Innovation Council

23 Nov 2017 | News

Swiss research leaders fear the new funding body will only serve the rare, ‘one-in-a-hundred’ breakthrough projects, and neglect the other critical innovation stages

Research leaders in Switzerland are urging EU Research Commissioner Carlos Moedas to widen the scope of the European Innovation Council to cover all aspects of translation and commercialisation.

The new funder is being set up to back break-through research, but “that’s the kind of thing that happens once every hundred years. We think it’s important to fund the whole cycle of research,” Myriam Cevallos, scientific advisor to Switzerland’s State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation, told Science|Business.

The ambition is that EIC, which will operate in a limited, exploratory phase from 2018 with the aim of expanding after 2021, will do for innovation what the European Research Council has done for fundamental research.

Switzerland’s official position on FP9, published in July, says, “an exclusive focus on disruptive innovation would result in a one‐dimensional, short-sighted and short‐term investment.”

“Disruptive innovations are rare occurrences that can hardly be anticipated or even steered,” the statement says.

The Swiss, the most successful non-EU applicant for Brussels funding, propose a broader and more down-to-earth mission statement for the fledgling funder, saying the EIC should, “make sure that promising results from applied research find their way to the market.”  

A recent proposal by French president Emmanuel Macron to create a “European agency for disruptive innovation” is also seeking funding from the next EU common budget.

“Funding only disruptive innovation directly goes in another direction to what we believe needs to happen,” Cevallos said in an interview to discuss Switzerland’s priorities for Framework Programme Nine.

Though not an EU member, Switzerland has full associated country status for the EU research programme, contributing to the pooled funding pot and doing very well out of it. Between 2007 and 2013, Swiss research bodies won nearly €2.5 billion in grants, some 10 per cent more than the country’s contribution to Framework Programme 7.

Home to two research universities that always figure around the top of global academic rankings, EPFL and ETH Zurich, the country has a very credible voice on science policy in Brussels.

That clout was threatened in 2014, when voters in a referendum narrowly backed new quotas for EU citizens, rupturing a longstanding agreement on free movement of people.

The knock-on effects were significant, with the row over immigration taking almost three years to sort out. Swiss researchers were initially locked out of Horizon 2020 competitions, including the European Research Council, but were later invited to submit proposals, so long as the Swiss government covered their funding.  

Despite this, Switzerland kept itself ahead of other non-EU countries, such as Norway and Israel, in research drawdown. But while it ranked ninth biggest grant recipient in the 2007-2013 programme, by July 2015 Switzerland had dropped to 14th place, which corresponds to a decline from 3.2 per cent to 1.8 per cent of all participations.

Swiss wish list

The Swiss have plenty of other detailed suggestions for how the next research programme should be shaped.

For a start, things need to become a lot simpler for applicants. Some sections of the programme are confusing for people in Switzerland, said Cevallos.

The joint technology initiatives (JTIs) for example, which are public-private partnerships supported to the tune of billions of euros in sectors such as pharmaceuticals, aeronautics, electronics, hydrogen fuel cells, new factories, construction, chemicals and other process industries, would benefit from reform.

“The problem is that every JTI works a little bit differently, with different rules and different ways to administer the cash,” Cevallos said.

Then there are the large “European Joint Programmes”, which plan that governments work on shared research priorities. According to Cevallos, “the coordination of such big projects may eat up lots of the budget, and they are monsters to coordinate”, and should be discontinued. 

It is also important that excellence continues to be a central principle of FP9. “Excellence needs to remain the main criteria,” Cevallos said. “We realise low success rates are a problem, but if you lower the requirements for excellence, the best researchers may eventually go elsewhere.”

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