London and Bern want more cooperation in areas like life sciences and space. But researchers see the bilateral deal as a poor substitute for Horizon Europe association
The UK and Switzerland have inked a new deal promising to step up research collaboration, although scientists have warned the tie-up is no substitute for Horizon Europe association and comes with no new money.
Both countries remain shut out of the EU’s research and innovation programme because of wider political disputes.
But today they signed a memorandum of understanding promising more cooperation with each other in areas including life sciences, energy technology, artificial intelligence and space.
“This agreement is more than a piece of paper: Swiss ministers and I are clear we want to drive deeper tangible co-operation in research fellowships, industrial innovation and regulatory standards in new technology sectors,” said UK science minister George Freeman.
Today’s announcement sets out a shopping list of areas where London and Bern want to see deeper ties. They hope to create more joint projects, meetings and workshops; enable more visits between researchers; and host joint strategy and coordination meetings.
There are also plans for ministers to convene an annual Anglo Swiss Research Collaboration Council.
So far, however, there aren’t any more specific details of which kind of projects the two countries want to embark upon, and nor does the deal come with any money attached as yet.
“I’m dubious any of this changes much in practice, either for EU or for UK or Switzerland,” said Simon Usherwood, a politics and international studies professor at the UK’s Open University.
Without new money, it was hard to see how either side would be incentivised to build new links, he said.
“It’s not a substitute for Horizon, more a marker that UK and Switzerland are trying to reinforce their argument that EU has not played fair on access [to Horizon Europe],” he said. “This suits both London (which wants to decouple this from tensions over Northern Ireland) and Bern (which wants to decouple this from tensions over free movement).”
The UK is still being blocked from associating to Horizon Europe because the European Commission is unhappy with London for threatening to overturn the Northern Ireland Protocol, a trade arrangement that was supposed to underpin post-Brexit relations.
Association with Switzerland is also on ice because talks on a wider framework of relations between Bern and Brussels collapsed last year.
“This is positive to see closer working cooperation between research and innovation communities in [the UK] & [Switzerland]. However, securing UK association to Horizon Europe remains our best outcome,” said the Russell Group of large research universities.
Although this latest announcement lacks details, UK and Swiss funding agencies have already ramped up joint calls in several research areas, like synthetic biology and materials. Last month, 30 projects won funding in the calls, with the UK side putting in almost £500,000.
As it remains outside Horizon Europe, the UK government has also tried to bolster ties with Singapore, announcing joint R&D initiatives last year.
Science minister Freeman told the BBC that this latest deal with Switzerland is the first of several, and that Israel would be the next country to sign.
Earlier this year, Freeman warned the Commission that unless it allowed the UK to associate to Horizon Europe in autumn , the country would go its own way and launch a “Plan B” alternative of its own.
UK science is also nervous about budget cuts ahead of a financial statement set for 17 November. “R&D spend isn’t a tap you can turn on and off. To reap the benefits we must stay the course & honour prior commitments,” warned the Campaign for Science and Engineering earlier this week.