Britain and Switzerland have signed a Memorandum of Understanding to collaborate on research and innovation after both were blocked from accessing the EU’s £80billion flagship innovation programme because of political disputes. The major Swiss-Anglo agreement is set to see a deepening relationship between the two countries’ world-leading research and innovation communities, with a particular focus on particular on what is called “deep science” and “deep tech”, which includes areas like life science, energy technology, AI and space.
It was signed and negotiated by Science Minister George Freeman, who has recently returned to his position after resigning from former Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Government and the Head of Switzerland’s Federal Department of Economic Affairs, Education and Research Guy Parmelin.
Mr Freeman said: “Being a Science Superpower means deepening our international relationships with leading R&D economies like Switzerland, and pursuing multi-lateral collaborations to tackle urgent global challenges like climate change, biosecurity and space sustainability.
“Research is fundamentally collaborative, and this will be another key step in realising the UK’s ambitions to deepen international R&D partnerships with leading laboratories, countries and industries around the world.
“Switzerland is home to world-class research in life science – especially neuroscience and vaccines, quantum, space, fintech and cleantech – and with longstanding links with the UK, it is a key strategic partner for us.
“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.”
Mr Freeman is also responsible for drafting up a “Bold Plan B” to Horizon Europe, the programme the UK was booted out from. It was told by the EU it can only rejoin the £80billion project if it resolves the Northern Ireland Protocol dispute, despite Britain’s involvement being a feature of the post-Brexit Trade and Cooperation Agreement struck in 2020.
Swiss ambassador to the UK, Markus Leitner, has said that the new deal with Switzerland is a huge “political signal” to researchers to deepen existing ties and look for new projects, although he told the BBC the deal was “separate” from the desire to rejoin Horizon, which is still a “priority”.
The programme would have let UK researchers access prestigious EU grants to work on a wide range of different projects, ranging from quantum mechanics to climate studies to AI. Now, many British researchers are having their funds withheld and risk losing out on the promised grants altogether unless they move to an associated Horizon country.
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The researchers would have also been able to collaborate with European partners, a crucial element of science. But given that Switzerland too has been blocked from the programme, a new deal between the two science powerhouses looks set to foster a new era of collaboration.
And striking deals with other strong science nations is a crucial component of Mr Freeman’s “Global Plan B” to Horizon Europe, although rejoining the programme is still the Government’s preferred option.
But as the EU needlessly dragged researchers into the political feud which has nothing to do with science, a delay that has gone on for almost two years, the Government has been urged to either try and break the deadlock or come up with an alternative plan for science.
As well as Switzerland, Mr Freeman has previously suggested that the UK could strike deals with other science powerhouses like Britain’s Five Eyes partners ( Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the US), as well as countries like Japan.
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Speaking exclusively to Express.co.uk back in August, Mr Freeman said: “Horizon, Euratom and Copernicus are key research collaboration programs in which we negotiated & agreed to remain in the Brexit Agreement the prime minister signed in January 2020.If the EU continues to block us because of the Northern Ireland Protocol we must invest at least the same budget in a big bold prestigious alternative global UK research Program open to European and global partners to tackle big global research challenges.”
Mr Freeman had also been preparing for the event that the UK may never be allowed to rejoin as early as February last year, when he visited Swtizerland to explore the possibility of striking a science deal. And in May, Express.co.uk spoke exclusively to Mr Parmelin about the potential for Anglo-Swiss cooperation on science.
He said: “Regardless of a possible association, Switzerland would like to strengthen its bilateral relations in research and innovation with key partners, such as the UK. We are working to further deepen and develop our excellent relations with the UK in these areas to allow for the use of synergies, strengthen the research and innovation landscape and ultimately address the societal challenges in Europe.”