The Federal Council is committed to strengthening and facilitating direct collaboration opportunities in education, research and innovation with countries and regions that have high scientific potential. With this in mind, bilateral programmes in science and technology were launched in 2008 with a view to encouraging collaboration with partner countries outside of Europe and North America. As highlighted by an international evaluation published in March, the bilateral programmes have added considerable value to the Swiss science community. The support of bilateral research projects, numerous seed-money and mobility instruments has led to a significant growth in the number of new scientific projects and networks in the targeted countries.
Switzerland’s Bilateral Cooperation Programmes in Science and Technology
Six Leading Houses to kick-start pilot activities
In agreement with swissuniversities, SERI has appointed six higher education institutions to act as Leading House for a specific region. Within their mandate, these Leading Houses offer grants which support bilateral pilot activities in research and increasingly also in the field of applied research and innovation.
Originally only focusing on high-potential BRICS countries, the Leading Houses have evolved to cover entire regions for which there would otherwise be few bilateral cooperation instruments available. For the first time, in 2017, two Universities of Applied Sciences (Zurich University of Applied Sciences and the University of Applied Sciences and Arts Western Switzerland), have assumed the role of Leading House for ‘South Asia and Iran’ and ‘Middle East and North Africa’ respectively.
In addition to making available collaboration instruments, Leading Houses promote knowledge about cooperation opportunities, while ensuring that the interests of the Swiss scientific community are represented the region under their responsibility. Frequently offered funding instruments include seed funding and bridging grants, as well as mobility and exchange grants. These instruments are designed to be experimental and complementary to the schemes made available by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF).
Switzerland’s bilateral programmes are managed by six Leading Houses, which award grants for small, experimental pilot activities, as well as by the Swiss National Science Foundation, tasked with the selection and the co-funding of Joint Research Projects (JRP) for larger bilateral research endeavours (cf. boxes). Both Leading House grants and JRPs are selected in a competitive peer-review process, based on the quality of the proposed project.
The overarching aim of the bilateral programmes is to support Swiss researchers in establishing and developing cooperation with partners around the world, particularly in the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), as well as in Japan and South Korea, which are not covered by other funding options such as the EU Framework Programmes.
Impact of Switzerland’s bilateral programmes
According to an evaluation mandated by SERI to a specialised Danish consultancy in 2019, the bilateral programmes add considerable value to the Swiss science community. 530 grants have been distributed so far within the current mandate period (2017–2020) from an overall budget of CHF 48.4 million. 85% of the grants distributed are expected to lead to a scientific publication and 70% of Leading House grants (40% of Joint Research Projects) are expected to result in proposals for larger collaborative projects. As for the long-term impact, 80% of grant beneficiaries have developed new relations and networks in their respective countries and more than 50% of the projects have led to the exchange of students after the supported project has ended. The evaluation therefore points to solid evidence that the bilateral programmes encourage the creation of strong and lasting international networks between both institutions and peers (cf. case study in box).
Since 2007, Switzerland has experienced a high growth in international research collaboration. In 2017, two thirds of all publications were co-authored with researchers from at least one foreign country. Between 2007 and 2017, the number of collaborative publications with any country increased by 88%. Collaborative research publications with the BRICS countries as well as with Japan and South Korea, however, increased by 166% in the same period. The programmes have therefore contributed to a significant above-average rise in bilateral collaboration with the countries they are aimed towards.
The evaluators conclude that the bilateral programmes complement existing funding mechanisms and that they correspond to the needs of Swiss researchers. Although the programmes offer a high degree of additionality, securing follow-up funding was indicated to be an issue for some researchers. Furthermore, the evaluation identifies potential for harmonising the various funding instruments and communication channels, but states that the decentralised Leading House model, which is a specific Swiss feature, is advantageous due to its proximity to the needs of the research community. Based on these findings, discussions on the mandates for the upcoming 2021-2024 period are currently taking place.
SERI’s Diplomacy for Science
Switzerland’s international strategy on education, research and innovation, which was approved by the Federal Council in July 2018, foresees that ‘Swiss [education, research and innovation] actors rise to the international challenges emerging from the tension between competition and cooperation.’ SERI’s role, with the help of the swissnex Network, is to establish the necessary diplomatic channels with its partner ministries so that the bilateral programmes can thrive. Joint Committee Meetings (JCMs) are held regularly in order to take stock of ongoing joint activities, discuss and possibly resolve any issues and develop new initiatives. In 2019 alone, five Joint Committee Meetings with partner ministries have taken place with countries directly involved in the bilateral programmes: Brazil, China (one with the Ministry of Science and Technology, another with the Ministry of Education), India, Russia and South Africa. In 2020, JCMs with Japan and Korea are due to take place.
The bilateral programmes therefore, as stated in the evaluation, have also clearly contributed to the strengthening of science diplomacy between Switzerland and its non-European partner countries.
Joint Research Projects to deepen scientific collaboration
Joint Research Projects (JRP) support longer and larger scale projects which are at a more advanced stage. Mandated by SERI, the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) organises and conducts joint calls for research projects in collaboration with countries with whom Switzerland has signed bilateral agreements (Brazil, China, India, Japan, Russia, South Africa and South Korea) or has agreed on a pilot call (Argentina). Not only do these efforts lead to substantial bilateral research projects based on international excellence standards, they also connect and build trust between the funding agencies themselves, with the goal to reach the conclusion of direct cooperation agreements between ‘sister-agencies’, whenever possible. Successful project applications are jointly supported, with each funding agency financing the researchers based in their own country (up to CHF 250,000 for the Swiss partner), usually for 3-4 years.
Maria Peyro Voeffray, SERI
Head Bilateral Relations