Fotos: CC-BY-NC-ND: Armin Rist and Lukas Munz, zVg

Funding know­ledge

Flexible research funding

Educa­tion and know­ledge are the basis for active parti­ci­pa­tion in our society. Money and awards, network and coaching are how foun­da­ti­ons support top-class rese­arch and basic trai­ning, both for people in Switz­er­land and around the world.

‘We need money for rese­arch, but on its own it’s not enough,’ says Rudolf Aeber­sold, profes­sor at ETH and the Univer­sity of Zurich. ‘Successful rese­arch hinges on people; that is, rese­ar­chers and students,’ adds the systems biolo­gist. Last year, the Marcel Benoist Foun­da­tion awarded him the epony­mous Swiss Science Prize, which it has presen­ted since 1920.

When the foun­da­tion evalua­tes a rese­arch perfor­mance, the social bene­fit is always in the fore­ground. The prize is now firmly estab­lished and has been dubbed the ‘Swiss Nobel Prize’. Rightly so: ‘Eleven winners of the Marcel Benoist Prize have also recei­ved a Nobel prize, most recently the astro­no­mer Profes­sor Michel Mayor in 2019,’ says Auré­lia Robert-Tissot, the foundation’s secretary.

Effec­tive tools

The foun­da­tion was estab­lished in 1920. Marcel Benoist, born into an upper-class family in Paris, succum­bed to small­pox in 1918. He had no child­ren and dedi­ca­ted his time to a wide array of inte­rests. From 1914, he spent most of his time in Lausanne and left the bulk of his assets to the Swiss Confe­de­ra­tion, which in return under­took to present a science prize every year. Since the foun­da­tion repo­si­tio­ned itself in 2018, a commit­tee of inter­na­tio­nal experts has selec­ted a candi­date from the nomi­na­ti­ons recei­ved. Howe­ver, the Board of Trus­tees is respon­si­ble for making the final decis­ion. The Board includes repre­sen­ta­ti­ves of Swiss univer­si­ties and the French embassy, with Fede­ral Presi­dent Guy Parme­lin, head of the Depart­ment of Econo­mic Affairs, Educa­tion and Rese­arch, as its presi­dent. Along­side the prize money of CHF 250,000, the award means increased visi­bi­lity for winners. Robert-Tissot says: ‘It can open doors, enab­ling people to make important cont­acts in the fields of rese­arch, busi­ness and society.’ And Aeber­sold adds: ‘In any case, prizes and awards are an effec­tive tool to make scien­ti­fic progress and its social signi­fi­cance acces­si­ble to a wider audi­ence. This commu­ni­ca­tion is of funda­men­tal importance; after all, it’s ulti­m­ately the gene­ral public, i.e. taxpay­ers, who pay for research.’

Core finan­cing in place

In Switz­er­land, rese­arch is faci­li­ta­ted prima­rily through state funding. In its study ‘Phil­an­thro­pie für die Wissen­schaft’, the Center for Phil­an­thropy Studies (CEPS) at the Univer­sity of Basel disco­vered in 2014 that 70% of the Univer­sity of Basel’s funding came from state sources. Conver­sely, John Hopkins Univer­sity in the US and Oxford Univer­sity in the UK receive no state funding whatsoe­ver. The direc­tor of CEPS and co-author of the study, Profes­sor Georg von Schnur­bein, belie­ves that this rela­ti­onship funda­men­tally is no diffe­rent today.

‘In Europe, and conti­nen­tal Europe above all, univer­si­ties are funded prima­rily by the state. In the US, conver­sely, top private univer­si­ties are funded by finan­cial dona­ti­ons.’ As a result, he explains, the rela­ti­onship with donors is diffe­rent: in the US, there is an expec­ta­tion placed on wealthy citi­zens, in parti­cu­lar alumni. ‘If you have money, you have to commit finan­ci­ally to rese­arch,’ says von Schnur­bein. It’s diffe­rent in Switz­er­land, where core funding is available. Gene­ral rese­arch is safe, meaning that donors can put forward their own ideas to a grea­ter extent. ‘And, in turn, univer­si­ties can coll­ect dona­ti­ons in a targe­ted manner, so they can pursue their stra­te­gic objec­ti­ves better,’ says von Schnur­bein. This has an impact on indi­vi­dual rese­ar­chers, who gain access to various funding opti­ons. Since rese­ar­chers in Switz­er­land are offe­red various funding agen­cies, such as the Swiss Natio­nal Science Foun­da­tion SNSF, along with foun­da­ti­ons and dona­ti­ons, Aeber­sold sees them as being in a privi­le­ged posi­tion. Funding bodies such as the SNSF provide funds in a trans­pa­rent, fair way, he says. Conver­sely, foun­da­ti­ons are much more focu­sed on a parti­cu­lar geogra­phi­cal area or topic, but in exch­ange are more flexi­ble in their allo­ca­tion. ‘In an ideal world, public and private funds comple­ment each other,’ he says, ‘and that works really well in Switz­er­land.’ This inter­play is key to crea­ting an appe­al­ing rese­arch envi­ron­ment and this applies not only to funding. ‘In the life scien­ces, rese­arch is incre­asingly turning to tech­no­logy and data proces­sing methods that often cannot be covered by an indi­vi­dual rese­arch group or insti­tu­tion,’ says Aeber­sold. ‘Foun­da­ti­ons can play a role in making rese­arch hubs more attrac­tive by proac­tively contri­bu­ting to networ­king and trai­ning for rese­ar­chers or deve­lo­p­ment of the infrastructure.’

Expe­ri­men­tal setup for solid/liquid sepa­ra­tion by Paul Berclaz from EPFL.
Photo: Paul Berclaz, Gior­gio von Arb, zVg
Rese­ar­ching Maoism: Cyril Cordoba, Univer­sity of Lausanne, digs deep into the topic.
Photo: Cyril Cordoba, zVg

Expert network

Networ­king and support­ing rese­ar­chers are two of the quali­ties that make the work by Stif­tung Synap­sis – Alzhei­mer Forschung Schweiz AFS stand out, along­side the organisation’s finan­cial invol­vement. The foun­da­tion supports rese­arch into Alzheimer’s dise­ase and other neuro­de­ge­nera­tive dise­a­ses at univer­si­ties in Switz­er­land. To this end, a public call for submis­sion of rese­arch projects is laun­ched every year.

Since 2018, the foun­da­tion has also invi­ted the rese­ar­chers it funds to a scien­ti­fic event, as Heide Marie Hess explains. She is respon­si­ble for commu­ni­ca­tion and promo­tion of rese­arch at Synap­sis and says: ‘We want to foster networ­king and the exch­ange of know­ledge. Time and again, the event gives rise to new ideas for colla­bo­ra­tion between rese­ar­chers.’ Members of the scien­ti­fic advi­sory board also parti­ci­pate in the event.

This body consists of inter­na­tio­nal experts who are respon­si­ble for selec­tion of the rese­arch projects. Its members have broad-based exper­tise, enab­ling submis­si­ons to be asses­sed objec­tively and on a sound basis. The advi­sory board can also offer support before the award decis­ion is made. ‘It might be the case that a member of the advi­sory board thinks a parti­cu­lar project idea is very inno­va­tive, but that the appli­ca­tion has certain formal defects,’ says Hess. In this case, the rese­ar­cher will receive detailed feed­back that they can use to make a new appli­ca­tion, or they might be given the oppor­tu­nity to submit infor­ma­tion retro­s­pec­tively. Helpful cont­acts are also passed on. Its compre­hen­sive funding work and elite advi­sory board mean that the foun­da­tion has estab­lished itself as the most important funder of rese­arch in the field of neuro­de­ge­nera­tive dise­a­ses in Switz­er­land. ‘The profes­sors know our name,’ says Hess. The 50 project appli­ca­ti­ons submit­ted to the foun­da­tion in 2021 are testa­ment to that.

Clear report­ing

‘Synap­sis’ repu­ta­tion and the work of the scien­ti­fic advi­sory board are also important for donors,’ says Barbara Rütti­mann, respon­si­ble for insti­tu­tio­nal fund­rai­sing and major donors. Regu­lar report­ing and the oppor­tu­nity to meet rese­ar­chers help Synap­sis to be trans­pa­rent about what happens with the money. This is crucial, in parti­cu­lar when working with other grant-making foun­da­ti­ons. If money is left over at the end of a project, the foun­da­tion asks for it back so it can ensure that the funds are used as the donors intended.

Rütti­mann says: ‘We work closely with rese­ar­chers, and that shapes our work. It allows us to be successful.’ The end of a project is also follo­wed by a self-regu­la­tion. ‘After a project has finis­hed, estab­lished rese­ar­chers are not allo­wed to submit a new appli­ca­tion for a year,’ says Hess. This prevents the same rese­arch groups from recei­ving support time and again: ‘We would run the risk of always support­ing the same rese­arch approach, and not giving other groups a chance,’ she says. It makes sense to prevent this, since nobody knows what ulti­m­ately trig­gers Alzheimer’s. New rese­arch approa­ches could advance the deco­ding of the mecha­nisms of origin. in addi­tion, the foun­da­tion offers targe­ted support for up-and-coming rese­ar­chers. ‘Post­docs aiming for a group leader posi­tion or assistant profes­sor­ship often find it tricky to get funding during this tran­si­tio­nal phase. We want to bridge this gap,’ says Hess. ‘The aim is to get young, talen­ted rese­ar­chers inte­res­ted in rese­ar­ching neuro­de­ge­nera­tive diseases.’

They include Arseny Soko­lov. A neuro­lo­gist, he recei­ved a Career Deve­lo­p­ment Award from Synap­sis in 2020, which was inten­ded to help him in his deve­lo­p­ment towards a profes­sor­ship. He reached this goal at the start of July this year, with a posi­tion at the Univer­sity of Lausanne. His study began at the same time. ‘Our rese­arch project looks at the value of serious video games for asses­sing cogni­tive defi­ci­en­cies in people with demen­tia,’ he says.

It focu­ses on assess­ment and reha­bi­li­ta­tion in the early stages of demen­tia, and invol­ves clinics in Nice, Bern, Lausanne and San Fran­cisco. ‘There is still little data on these tech­no­logy-based methods,’ he says. It is wonderful that their project can fill this niche. He’s also impres­sed by the foundation’s approach to support­ing rese­arch. ‘We worked closely toge­ther from the start and I recei­ved outstan­ding advice from the advi­sory board,’ he says. And his rese­arch is gene­ra­ting results. Demen­tia rese­arch is a major issue in society: funds are available for drug rese­arch, but rese­arch into reha­bi­li­ta­tion is in its infancy. ‘Synap­sis reco­g­nised the rele­vance and poten­tial of this field of rese­arch, which the WHO is actively explo­ring with a group of experts in which we are participating.’

Uncon­ven­tio­nally flexible

When Soko­lov was a student, it became clear to him that he was inte­res­ted in how the brain rege­ne­ra­tes after an injury. His passion for this field of rese­arch grew when he was in Cali­for­nia, where he was impres­sed by the close inter­ac­tion between rese­arch and indus­try in San Fran­cisco. He was also impres­sed by the phil­an­thropy there, but the quality of Switz­er­land as a rese­arch loca­tion won him over, leading to his move back to the coun­try. ‘Switz­er­land should not shy away from inter­na­tio­nal compa­ri­sons,’ he says. ‘This is shown by the rese­arch results.’ The invol­vement of phil­an­thropy plays a part in this. ‘It’s indis­pensable when it comes to inno­va­tive, world-chan­ging ideas,’ says Soko­lov. ‘It enables rese­ar­chers to pursue uncon­ven­tio­nal approa­ches and deve­lop a dyna­mic that would take deca­des with tradi­tio­nal funding program­mes.’ Synap­sis is very aware of the fact that its funding serves to comple­ment state funds. ‘Unfort­u­na­tely, we do not have as much funding to give out as the Swiss Natio­nal Science Foun­da­tion does,’ says Hess. ‘But in exch­ange we are more flexi­ble to whom we award it. We can react to rese­ar­chers’ needs quickly and on an indi­vi­dual basis, where it’s sensi­ble and justi­fied to do so, and try to provide support where we think there are funding gaps.’ The current coro­na­vi­rus crisis demons­tra­tes just how flexi­ble and straight­for­ward foun­da­ti­ons can be in their work. The asso­cia­tion Swiss­Foun­da­ti­ons laun­ched the educa­tion fund ‘Foun­da­tion for Future’, in conjunc­tion with diverse grant-making foun­da­ti­ons, because the state had not deve­lo­ped a uniform solu­tion to support students.

‘Many students ended up in finan­cial distress because they had lost their part-time jobs, which they needed to stay afloat. They were at risk of going into debt and, in the worst-case scena­rio, drop­ping out of their studies,’ says Simon Merki, mana­ging direc­tor of the foun­da­tion EDUCA SWISS. Schwei­ze­ri­sche Stif­tung für Bildungs­för­de­rung und ‑finan­zie­rung mana­ges the educa­tion fund, using the money to support students in need. In 2020, the year hard-hit by the crisis, the foun­da­tion recei­ved 1,688 appli­ca­ti­ons, almost as many as in the previous four years combined.

‘Although the pande­mic is now gradu­ally flat­tening out and more part-time jobs are retur­ning, the econo­mic damage is far from over,’ says Merki. ‘With “Foun­da­tion for Future”, Swiss grant-making foun­da­ti­ons are working toge­ther to do ever­y­thing they can to main­tain equal oppor­tu­ni­ties in the educa­tion sector.’

A clear strategy

Although foun­da­ti­ons give out signi­fi­cant amounts of funding, it remains the state that has the grea­test influence on the direc­tion of rese­arch, putting paid to the idea that large donors threa­ten the inde­pen­dence of rese­arch. This was high­ligh­ted by UBS’ dona­tion of CHF 100 million to the Univer­sity of Zurich in 2012, which trig­ge­red outrage. Georg von Schnur­bein sees this dona­tion in a wholly posi­tive light. ‘It made it possi­ble to attract wonderful acade­mics to Zurich, and Zurich is now one of the stron­gest loca­ti­ons in conti­nen­tal Europe for econo­mic scien­ces,’ he says. It’s the students who bene­fit from this. ‘Today we need private, third-party funding to support cutting-edge rese­arch, but it is an addi­tion to all the funding on offer.’ He’s well aware of these issues, as head of CEPS, which is itself funded by foun­da­ti­ons. He points to the institute’s clear struc­ture and another aspect that ensu­res rese­arch remains inde­pen­dent: the regu­la­tion of the rese­arch community.

‘If I want to publish my rese­arch, I submit it to an acade­mic jour­nal. Rese­ar­chers who do not know the author’s iden­tity subject it to peer review.’ This guaran­tees that acade­mic output is inde­pendently assessed.

‘Brain­storm’: a photo collage by Stefan Sommer from ETH Zurich. The rese­ar­cher lies in the scan­ner and studies his own brain at the same time.. | Photo: Stefan Sommer
Quali­ta­tive social ‘Rese­arch at the edges’ in the village of Koffikro in Côte d’Ivoire by Nadine Arnold, Univer­sity of Lucerne.
Photo: Nadine Arnold, zVg

Equal oppor­tu­ni­ties

The Jacobs Foun­da­tion supports rese­arch that looks at ques­ti­ons rela­ting to educa­tion and also supports educa­tio­nal projects. This focus can be traced back to its foun­der, Klaus J. Jacobs, who belie­ved that educa­tion was of funda­men­tal importance for society.

‘He always belie­ved that the next gene­ra­tion would bring forth change with rene­wed energy,’ says Alex­an­dra Günt­zer, the foundation’s Chief Commu­ni­ca­ti­ons Offi­cer. He was convin­ced that educa­tion was the key to enab­ling child­ren and young people to become crea­tive, produc­tive members of society. ‘He felt it was important that every child recei­ved a good educa­tion, no matter their social class or family back­ground,’ says Güntzer.

The Stan­ley Thomas John­son Foun­da­tion promo­tes the project ‘2. Chance auf eine 1. Ausbil­dung’ (Second chance for an educa­tion). In fact, it does not fit with the foundation’s funding work, which supports culture and medi­cal rese­arch in Switz­er­land and the UK. But, thanks to a dona­tion, it can use the project to offer 50 adults in the canton of Bern the oppor­tu­nity to step into the primary labour market by comple­ting basic training.

‘These people often work in badly paid, low-thres­hold jobs,’ says the foundation’s mana­ging direc­tor Guido Münzel. ‘And they are the jobs that are most at risk in a crisis.’ The project is concei­ved as a supple­ment to the support offe­red by the state. ‘We play only a secon­dary role,’ says Münzel. In other words, the foun­da­tion beco­mes invol­ved only if there is no other way for the candi­date to acquire funding.

Howe­ver, it came to the reali­sa­tion that candi­da­tes not only needed money, but also addi­tio­nal support, such as coaching or prepa­ra­tion for voca­tio­nal school. So it shifted from simply funding the project to actually running it. ‘In fact, that’s not what we wanted,’ says Münzel. ‘But at the same time we wanted to offer the best possi­ble support to people bene­fiting from our service.’ The foun­da­tion sought out colla­bo­ra­tion with estab­lished insti­tu­ti­ons and canto­nal autho­ri­ties in order to work as effec­tively as possi­ble. ‘It became clear that we were pursuing the same goal, inte­gra­ting workers into the primary labour market.’ And this is where Münzel belie­ves there are oppor­tu­ni­ties to be had due to the shortage of skil­led labour; for exam­ple, in the health­care sector. ‘We can see that there’s an oppor­tu­nity here to inte­grate our programme’s candi­da­tes into the primary labour market.’ The foun­da­tion recei­ved 180 appli­ca­ti­ons this year and chose 47 candi­da­tes. The budget for this runs to CHF 1.4 million and over the next few months the goal is to find all 47 an appren­ti­ce­ship by August 2022. This is the third itera­tion of the project, but after this the Stan­ley Thomas John­son Foun­da­tion will take a step back from funding it. Münzel belie­ves that if the programme proves itself, a commu­nity of inte­rests can be found to conti­nue it.

‘The astro­no­mer’ by Nico­las Blind from the Univer­sity of Geneva shows the exch­ange of compon­ents in a telescope.
Snow rese­ar­cher Martin Schnee­beli, WSL, takes a snow sample on the sea ice in the Arctic.

Rese­arch and more

The Jacobs Foun­da­tion has also honed its focus with its new stra­tegy. ‘We star­ted as a rese­arch-support­ing foun­da­tion,’ says Nora Marke­tos. Since 2009, the foun­da­tion has used the Klaus J. Jacobs Award to honour outstan­ding achie­ve­ments in rese­arch and prac­tice rela­ting to child and youth development.

And with the Jacobs Foun­da­tion Rese­arch Fellow­ship Program, it opera­tes a global scho­lar­ship programme for rese­arch into the deve­lo­p­ment, lear­ning and living condi­ti­ons of child­ren and adole­s­cents. It supports basic rese­arch and applied rese­arch alike.

‘We want to fund rese­arch in areas where there are gaps in know­ledge,’ says Laura Metz­ger, co-lead of Lear­ning Minds. To do so, the foun­da­tion turns to outstan­ding rese­ar­chers who are the best in their field. Its acade­mic agenda sees it advance the ques­ti­ons asked by the Jacobs Foun­da­tion. ‘Follo­wing a struc­tu­red process, we set out the over­ar­ching topic, curr­ently the varia­bi­lity of lear­ning, and deter­mine where know­ledge is miss­ing,’ says Metzger.

In addi­tion, the Jacobs Rese­arch Fellows enjoy acade­mic free­dom. All kinds of insights have been gained in this way, but the Jacobs Foun­da­tion does not want to rest­rict itself to the support of cutting-edge rese­ar­chers and is deve­lo­ping Stra­tegy 2030. Nora Marke­tos, co-lead of Lear­ning Schools, says: ‘We want to put the findings from this rese­arch into prac­tice as evidence-based inter­ven­ti­ons, and contri­bute to syste­mic change as a result.’ Under this new stra­tegy, the Jacobs Foun­da­tion will invest CHF 500 million in rese­arch and educa­tion by 2030. This will take place across various count­ries, with a special focus on the Ivory Coast, Switz­er­land and since the start of the year Ghana, as Marke­tos explains. The aim is to also add a South Ameri­can coun­try to the port­fo­lio. In these count­ries, the foun­da­tion can draw on a network of part­ners and orga­ni­sa­ti­ons working in close colla­bo­ra­tion. Govern­ments are also deeply invol­ved. The World Bank is another key stake­hol­der, with this orga­ni­sa­tion active in the educa­tion sector in deve­lo­ping count­ries. The programme also encom­pas­ses NGOs, schools and private compa­nies. This is exem­pli­fied by the programme TRECC, Trans­forming Educa­tion in Cocoa Commu­ni­ties. The Jacobs Foun­da­tion hopes to use this programme to enable people in the Ivory Coast to enjoy high quality educa­tion and contri­bute to educa­tio­nal change. ‘This programme shows that things work only through colla­bo­ra­tion – and not without it,’ says Günt­zer. And this is exactly where the new stra­tegy is heading: the aim is colla­bo­ra­tion between govern­ment, NGOs, foun­da­ti­ons, local orga­ni­sa­ti­ons, private indi­vi­du­als and industry.

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