European programmes are an essential tool for guaranteeing scientific excellence and increasing EPFL’s impact. In addition to the 600 jobs that depend directly on them, they promote its attractiveness to international talent, its ability to collaborate and strengthen its academic and industrial leadership. They also enable its start-ups to grow and its industrial partners to have access to strategic markets.
Since 2021, Switzerland is no longer associated with European programmes. The effects on the competitiveness of Swiss research will only be felt in the long term, but the first signs of its erosion are emerging. This is particularly the case for EPFL, where we are seeing a drop in the number of European collaborations that our researchers are invited to join, the first relocations of start-ups, as well as the exclusion of projects and markets deemed strategic by the European Union, particularly in the field of quantum research.
End of Academic Leadership
The European programmes allowed EPFL researchers to propose and lead collaborative projects. This gave them the opportunity to participate in setting the academic agenda, as well as potentially influencing the technologies that companies decide to adopt. Between 2014 and 2020, EPFL led up to 6 new projects each year within the H2020 programme, particularly in the fields of robotics, quantum technologies and green energy.
Due to the non-association of Switzerland to the Horizon Europe programme, EPFL researchers no longer have the opportunity to lead projects, so leadership is shifting to other countries fully associated with Horizon Europe.
Stable funding so far
The European programmes also encouraged international collaborations by providing a unique framework. Participation in these collaborative projects remains possible. Their financing is ensured by transitional measures managed by the Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation (SERI). Thanks to these measures, the level of funding for EPFL remains stable for 2022; this year, its researchers raised a total of CHF 29 million in collaborative projects under the Horizon Europe programme. On average, they raised the same amount during the seven years of the previous H2020 programme.
Declining number of new collaborations
However, these measures are reaching their limit. The first projects funded by the Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation (SEFRI) were the result of pre-existing collaborations. We now observe that our European partners are less likely to include our researchers in new projects. In 2022, EPFL was invited to be a partner in 130 projects. This is 20% less than the average for the previous 7 years (2014-2020). This decrease reaches 64% for the Marie Sklodowska-Curie networks, a programme that gives grants to young researchers. As some of these projects are still being evaluated, the effects of this decrease on the level of funding may be felt from 2023 onwards.
Quantum technology – from partner to strategic competitor
Since the beginning of the non-association to the Horizon Europe programme, EPFL has twice experienced a de facto exclusion from projects in fields considered strategic by the European Union, in particular quantum technologies. Indeed, two projects related to quantum technologies in which EPFL participated were rejected in 2022, largely due to the presence of a Swiss partner. The evaluators considered that the presence of a Swiss partner was a risk for Europe’s strategic autonomy.
In addition to Horizon Europe, there are several other programmes funded by the EU/Europe. One of them, Digital Europe, focuses on digital technologies, including quantum. Swiss companies and academics do not have access to its calls for projects and tenders. This is particularly the case for the European Quantum Communication Infrastructure (EuroQCI).
Relocation of start-ups
In April 2022, the start-up Ligentec, active in quantum technologies, announced that it was relocating part of its research and development activity to France. This choice is partly linked to the deterioration of the framework conditions in connection with the non-association.
The European programmes were indeed a growth tool for EPFL start-ups, thanks to funding from the European Innovation Council (EIC). Swiss start-ups no longer have access to them. The EIC is also an important tool for start-ups to gain exposure and collaborate with future European customers through collaborative projects.
Today’s collaborations are tomorrow’s jobs
The example of Ligentec is particularly striking. The effects of research on job and technology creation can take time. In this case, it is the result of more than 10 years of investment by EPFL in quantum research, as well as CHF 36 million of European funding since 2013 in Professor Kippenberg’s group. The growth of Ligentec itself has also been made possible by European programmes. It now employs 30 people at its Lausanne site, but 8 people at its French site.
The non-association today with European programmes will potentially correspond to jobs that, in 10 years’ time, will not be created in Switzerland, but within the European Union
Western Switzerland particularly at risk
Between 2014 and 2020 under the previous EU H2020 programme, Switzerland managed to raise EUR 2.425 billion. 43% of this sum, or EUR 1 billion, was allocated to activities in French-speaking Switzerland, including EUR 600 million to universities and EUR 154 million to companies in the region.
The first immediate effects of Switzerland’s non-association with European programmes on EPFL are apparent. We are seeing the first signs of an erosion of its competitiveness; the number of collaborations is decreasing, access to European markets for our technologies is being restricted, the first start-ups are relocating part of their activities. A continuation of these negative effects is to be expected. This is why EPFL continues to monitor the situation closely and regularly updates this report
09 February 2023.
Tristan Maillard, Nina Eggert, Caroline Vandevyver