Locked out of the EU research programme, Swiss universities are nervous of losing money set aside for association. Parliamentarians now want to protect this cash in a ‘Horizon Fund’
Swiss lawmakers have drawn up a ‘Horizon Fund’ law to protect money earmarked for association to the EU research programme, amid fears it could be whittled down if unspent cash at the end of the year reverts to the central treasury.
Switzerland, like the UK, is being blocked by the Commission from associating to the research and innovation framework programme due to higher level political disputes.
Both countries have set money aside to cover the costs of association if it goes ahead, and in the meantime are spending it on alternative schemes set up to replicate aspects of Horizon Europe.
But in a year when public finances have been squeezed by rising energy prices, this budget makes a tempting target for finance ministries looking for savings.
Swiss lawmakers are now trying to head off this threat by creating a protected ‘Horizon Fund’ for as long as the country is kept out of Horizon Europe.
“This is to prevent ‘unspent’ funds, previously allocated to Horizon Europe, from being used to cover deficits at the end of the year,” said Yves Flückiger, president of the umbrella body swissuniversities.
In mid-November, the science, education and culture committee of the Swiss parliament publicised its plans for the fund. “This is intended to achieve a similarly stable financing basis as in the case of an association,” it said. The plans are now out for consultation until mid-February.
If Switzerland was associated, it would pay a regular contribution to Brussels each year for Horizon Europe access, said Martina Weiss, general secretary of swissuniversities.
But as Switzerland is now dishing out this cash project-by-project, the risk is that one year it underspends compared to the allocated Horizon Europe block contribution, leaving surplus money at the end of the year that would be taken out of the research budget.
“We fear that the money will be lost, or diluted or transferred to the general federal treasury,” Weiss said. “Our main aim is to ensure that this money is used for research and is not lost to other domains or the general budget.”
Swissuniversities has welcomed the plan, although in a response released yesterday, it set out a handful of extra points needed to make sure it functions as intended. It wants to make sure the fund doesn’t negatively impact other education, research and innovation budgets.
If the law progresses smoothly, it should come into force by the end of 2023, said Weiss.
Although the fund should steady Swiss universities’ finances, it’s also a sign that there is little immediate hope of a breakthrough on association – although this remains the goal of universities, the government and parliamentarians.
“This proposal from federal parliamentarians also reflects the fact that more and more people believe that it will take some time before an association is agreed upon,” said Flückiger.
Association was blocked by the Commission after Bern walked away in May last year from broader talks to combine the multitude of bilateral agreements between the EU and Switzerland into a single legal framework. These wider negotiations remain deadlocked.
“They’re friendly talks but I haven’t seen progress,” said Weiss.
In the UK, meanwhile, universities remain at the whim of the government not to eat into money set aside for association.
With UK public finances under pressure, some have even argued that universities should settle for a homegrown “Plan B” alternative to association, just to bank the money for research, rather than wait for association.
The new chancellor Jeremy Hunt settled nerves last month by confirming that the government would increase public R&D funding to £20 billion by 2024-5 as planned.