The Stick to Science initiative calls for collaboration in science before politics, in order to create an R&I landscape that is “free from political barriers”.
It comes as UK and Switzerland’s participation in the Horizon Europe R&I program run by the European Union “hangs in the balance”.
During a press conference on the launch, Michael Hengartner, president of the ETH board, made a plea to all sides to come together for a solution.
“In a sense, therefore, this is a call to all political leaders in Switzerland, in the UK and Brussels, in all EU member states. Please help us work better together. Please make sure that science can act as a bridge,” Hengartner stressed.
“We cannot accept any longer that scientific cooperation be held hostage to bilateral politics,” said Ludovic Thilly, chair of the executive board at Coimbra Group – an association representing over 40 universities across the continent.
“A decade of cooperation with our British and Swiss partners is at risk of being jeopardised and this at a period of time when global challenges have never required so much international research cooperation,” Thilly continued.
The UK’s involvement in Horizon Europe remains “tangled up” in post-Brexit trade agreements and difficulties – Switzerland, on the other hand, remains completely shut out of parts of the program.
The supporting groups have stressed that these barriers are the EU putting “political disputes ahead of science collaboration”.
“We know that sometimes political and economical variations produce more questions of security that must be taken into account,” said Antoine Petit, CEO of CNRS at the press conference.
“If we don’t start sharing at a global scale and fairness and explosion of information at the international level… Europe will be less,” he added.
The estimate of the value added if the UK and Switzerland are fully associated with Horizon Europe would add another €18 billion to the program – a top of “18%”.
“In the UK we feel that we are running out of time to finalise association to Horizon Europe,” said Vivienne Stern, director of UUKi.
“Throughout the Brexit process we, and colleagues from all over Europe, argued that it was in our common interest to be part of this programme.
“We simply want all sides to get on with it and speed up association for the UK, and for Switzerland, and not to allow other issues to stand in the way of that,” she continued.
The campaign takes the form of an online petition, requesting that the European Council, Parliament, Commission, and EU member states recognise that the “advancement in R&I is best achieved when all actors in science and innovation work together across geographic boundaries”.
“We simply want all sides to get on with it and speed up association for the UK, and for Switzerland”
It urges the EU to “rapidly reach association agreements” in order that the UK and Switzerland can begin to contribute “scientifically and financially”.
“It’ll also be a great disadvantage to all of the European countries and will be unable to collaborate in the same way – the financial costs of that will be quite significant,” said Paul Boyle, of Universities UK.
“The UK and Switzerland obviously contribute quite a lot into the Central Court and that will be reduced, which means they will be less science being conducted under these programmes,” he explained.
It comes after the UK and Switzerland already have preliminary agreements in other areas; the UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement, formed in December 2020, means that while the UK is not associated with Horizon Europe, “entities” in the UK can apply for calls within the Horizon Europe landscape.
For Switzerland, Horizon Europe lists it as a “non-associated third country” – preparatory actions for it joining were completed in December 2020 from a Swiss standpoint, but the EC has stated that it is “not in a position to discuss the next steps towards association”, expecting the Swiss to present a new roadmap on evolving discussions.
Thus, the uncertainty that the Stick to Science Initiative is trying to tackle has endured for both countries.
“Cooperation across national borders has never been more important as the world faces serious global challenges,” said ETH Zurich president Joël Mesot.
“With their top scientific institutions, Switzerland and the UK have an enormous amount to offer to address these challenges.
“Moreover, unresolved political issues should never prevent scientific cooperation. This would be contrary to the interests of society as a whole. Taking science hostage is never a good idea,” he stressed.