Research infrastructures face disruption due to association deadlock

04 Apr 2022 | News

Fusion energy breakthrough highlights the risks of excluding Switzerland and UK from European infrastructure projects

When JET, the Joint European Torus, announced a breakthrough in the production of fusion energy in February, the celebrations could be heard across Europe. Although based in the UK, the project belongs to a much wider fusion research community.

“JET is operated technically by the UK Atomic Energy Authority, but it is staffed and the scientific work conducted by a consortium of 28 countries across Europe, and beyond,” said Ambrogio Fasoli, chair of the general assembly of EUROfusion, the body that coordinates fusion research supported under the Euratom Treaty. “All of the difficulties that we encountered in reaching this ultimate performance were addressed and overcome by task forces working across Europe.”

The irony is that Fasoli is also director of the Swiss Plasma Centre, and Switzerland is currently unable to participate in new research projects funded by Euratom and the EU’s Horizon Europe programme. The same goes for the UK. This is because the agreements associating both countries with the EU research programmes are currently blocked by political disagreements in areas that have nothing to do with science.

The UK and Switzerland share the same values as the EU and have a long history of participation in European research infrastructures, dating back to the founding of CERN in 1954. These include the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (one arm of which, the European Bioinformatics Institute, is based in Cambridge, UK), the European Southern Observatory and the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility. The lack of association agreements with Horizon Europe will not obstruct these independent initiatives, but may get in the way of new infrastructure projects, such as those set out in the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures (ESFRI) roadmap.

The UK expects to participate in 11 infrastructure projects on the 2021 ESFRI roadmap, while Switzerland is involved in six. These are projects in the preparation phase  and have been selected based on the quality of the scientific case and for their maturity. They include infrastructures dealing with brain research, ecosystem studies, renewable energy and big data.

Two former chairs of ESFRI have signed up to support Stick to Science, set up by the European research community to promote open, barrier-free research collaboration. They are Jan Hrušák, a senior research fellow and scientific adviser at the Czech Academy of Sciences, and Giorgio Rossi, a professor of physics at the University of Milan. “If someone wants to start something new, it is a pity if relevant contributions cannot be incorporated, or only in a bilateral way,” Rossi said.

Scientific talent

In particular, scientific talent is key to successful research infrastructures. “Many of the infrastructure projects in Europe that are going slower than expected are blocked by not having the critical mass of competent human resources they need to move ahead,” said Rossi. “In the long term you can solve that by training more people, but the quick way is to be as open as possible to the movement of researchers.”

Rossi also coordinates Nanoscience Foundries and Fine Analysis (NFFA-Europe), a distributed research infrastructure involving nanofoundries around Europe, including two at Swiss institutes. For him, that collaboration, which is not under threat, is very valuable. “If we could no longer collaborate, that would be a loss,” Rossi said. “There are several areas where the equipment and the specific competences of our colleagues in Switzerland are very precious.”

Compromise on fusion

In the short term, the fusion community has found a compromise that keeps collaboration with colleagues based in the UK and Switzerland going. The UK Atomic Energy Authority and the Swiss Plasma Centre have been given associate membership of EUROfusion through the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics in Garching, Germany. This means they can participate in collaborations, as long as there is funding from national research budgets.

“The only difference is that we do not have voting rights in the EUROfusion Assembly. Otherwise, we are treated as full members by everybody else,” said Fasoli. “This is a further demonstration of how deeply this cohesive approach to fusion in Europe is embedded in our DNA.”

However, no such fix is in sight for ITER, the global fusion research project currently under construction in France. European participation is through the Euratom programme, and without an association agreement both Swiss and British researchers are excluded.

“In principle, that means we cannot participate in any activities directly related to ITER,” Fasoli said. “In terms of R&D, we always do our own work and collaborate where we can, but new contracts and agreements are not possible.”

As one example of how progress could be hampered, this makes it awkward for ITER to benefit from new plasma control methods developed in Switzerland. “We have collaborated a lot in this area, but now it is harder, although we will try to find ways to continue collaborating more informally,” said Fasoli.

The block is more absolute for Swiss and British companies, which cannot participate in the construction of ITER until the situation is resolved, Fasoli noted. “All procurement for ITER has to be done without Swiss industry, which is bad for Swiss companies, of course, but also bad for the project, because there are some areas where we have a contribution to make.”

The UK is also awaiting a resolution. “The UK government is seeking an association agreement with the Euratom research and training programme, which would allow for JET continuation and UK’s continued participation in ITER,” said a spokesperson for the UK Atomic Energy Authority. “We hope that an association can be concluded swiftly to enable our extremely productive collaboration to continue.”

The signatories to the Stick to Science campaign are urging the EU, the UK and Switzerland to agree association agreements as soon as possible, so that the two countries can continue to contribute both scientifically and financially to the strength of Horizon Europe.

This article was originally published on 24 March 2022

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