Scientific cooperation in Europe – quo vadis?

The President of the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) Martin Vetterli reflects on scientific cooperation in Europe in the light of fading hope for association of Switzerland and the United Kingdom with Horizon Europe. Now is the time to act, for the good of European science!
29th June 2022
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The last months and years have challenged the world and Europe in particular: Brexit, the COVID crisis and now a war on our continent. The EU, designed for fair weather, swings from one challenge to the next.

Brexit has revealed a deep rift in the idea of European integration. The rift has been slumbering underground for years and what seemed unthinkable has become reality. The COVID crisis did its part in revealing the vulnerability of our society. From one day to the next, we were locked down and barriers were imposed on our borders. The war of aggression in Ukraine has brought back dark memories of the past, which we thought we had overcome.

It is time to think about what unites us, to explore common values, beyond national borders, detached from political skirmishes, be it in the EU, in the UK, in Switzerland or anywhere else in Europe. We have a common, complex and painful history. But we can have a prosperous, common future - if we all want it and don't see differences as dividers.

Overcoming political tensions has always been a very challenging task. Bringing together conflicting countries requires courage and foresight and is a training ground for working out cooperation. The birth of CERN in Geneva was an example of a great moment for mankind. Peaceful cooperation in the field of science became the order of the day after the Second World War. Today CERN remains a successful model of a peaceful scientific cooperation par excellence.

What we are missing in Europe today is the irrepressible will to cooperate in the field of science and research, across borders, regardless of political tensions. Science unites us, something that was impressively demonstrated during the COVID crisis. Science moves our continent forward, makes it competitive and creates new knowledge for the benefit of society.

Our current reality is different. Within Europe, we are beginning to separate ourselves, cooperation is being terminated, common values are eroding and are no longer the unifying elements between our nations. There are no doubt political differences, and the reasons for these differences are manifold and complex.

I would like to appeal to the common sense in all of us, to return science and research to their rightful place in society, to help tackle the great challenges of our time as a united Europe, together, regardless of political differences. Science has the potential to unite, history has proven this many times. So, it is time to get back on the path of scientific virtue, to enable cooperation and not to hinder it. Not associating countries like the UK and Switzerland with Horizon Europe is absurd given the enormous challenges we face as a human race. It is an expression of narrow-mindedness on all sides to hold science hostage to a political situation it neither caused nor contributed to.

Where is the irrepressible will to find a way out of this tricky situation? Where are the visionary ideas and politicians who can navigate these choppy waters, allowing scientists to work together again, unhindered by politics?

We launched Stick-to-Science to give a voice and platform to the European research community. Many have come forward and borne witness to the fact that only full UK and Swiss association with Horizon Europe will move our continent forward. We thank you all for your support.

Unfortunately, our request currently feels like a call into the desert. The people who could make a difference didn't or chose not to hear us. Hope is fading. Time is pressing, scientifically, as well as politically. With no solution, we all lose, not just Switzerland and the UK - but also the European Union and our continent as a whole. Now is the time to act, for the good of European science!

Martin Vetterli
President of EPFL

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