According to the European Commission research chief Jean-Eric Paquet, Horizon Europe will offer more “flexibility” to foreign countries that wish to join the new EU’s biggest ever R&D programme, which will run for seven years from 2021. The idea, said Jan -Eric Paquet, is to offer association membership that would allow former Third countries to participate in EU research under the same conditions as member states. This is indeed a proposal that already has stirred some interest from important partners (such as Canada) and it is expected to induce more foreign partners – at least between 20/30 – to seek association. However, although this is looks like a very promising development to the “open door” policy issued by the European  Commission, internal disagreement and, a legal framework that still makes any EU programme too bureaucracy-intensive and, therefore, less appealing to major countries such as the US. On top of that, the most ambitious R&D programme ever, might risk losing two of the most influential countries.

As a matter of fact, Horizon Europe includes in its preliminary legal text a category of countries that may be barred from programmes designed to encourage innovation. The proposal still needs to be approved by member states yet, if the text is not amended, the whole programme is indeed destined to kick-off in 2021 amid serious uncertainties around the status both the UK and Switzerland will hold in the programme.

Swiss fears

With regards to the Alpine country, Swiss researchers have already experienced the effect of an exclusion from EU R&D funding when, in 2014, Switzerland was temporary relegated to third country status, with no access at all to important opportunities, such as the SME Instrument. The decision, due to an issue of migration quotas, caused the country to fall rapidly from a 3.9% to just 0.3% of all project coordination between 2014 -2016.

When it comes to the new programme, instead, Switzerland has been classified in category 4 of non-EU states.  Strictly speaking, this new classification should not affect funding of Swiss research projects however, the heads of Switzerland’s two Federal Institutes of Technology, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETHZ) and  and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL) have recently voiced their concerns that funding restrictions could apply anyway, unless a political settlement between Swiss and EU politicians is reached.

UK Research between a “no deal” and pledges to “fully associate”

If talks between Swiss and the EU politicians have been going on since 2014 to reach a political agreement that might safeguard the “cake-and-eat-it” model granted to Switzerland, Britain’s research institutions have been trying to fill the recently increased political gap by engaging in alliances and agreements with other European counterparts. the idea behind this diplomatic effort is that “If the UK is left out of any part of Horizon Europe, it makes the programme less appealing [and] it lowers the level of competition, and probably lowers the value of the grant.” (Jessica Cole, head of policy at the Russell Group). For as bold as this statement can appear, it cannot be denied that in the much feared event of a no-deal Brexit, the new Horizon Europe will lose a net contributor that currently weights for the 14.3% of the total funding awarded by H2020 to date (€5.1bn) and counts the highest number of successful projects. These are all things that are very well taken into consideration in Europe as well and, although “A lot of people are thinking that ERC grants would become easier to win without the involvement of Cambridge and Oxford, […] we need to defend the continent against the big money being spent on research in the US, Japan and China. We need our strongest team, so we should find a way to keep UK in the game.” (Olivier Küttel, EPFL head of European public affairs).