Foto: Marvin Zilm

I am amazed every day

Versatile research location

The presi­dent of the Univer­sity of Zurich, Michael Schaep­man, talks about rese­arch funding, the advan­ta­ges of a foun­da­tion and what it means now that Switz­er­land is no longer an asso­ciate member of Hori­zon Europe.

When you were a student, did you think about how rese­arch was funded?

When I star­ted my studies, I was just amazed by the enorm­ous scale of rese­arch. I spent less time thin­king about how to fund my rese­arch. Howe­ver, I reali­sed imme­dia­tely that the quality is really high for topics in which the univer­sity alre­ady held a compe­ti­tive posi­tion, and there was plenty of funding for them. I found out about rese­arch funding when I took on respon­si­bi­lity as a profes­sor and in my manage­ment roles, such as my func­tion as president.

What is the signi­fi­cance of private funding?

Publicly funded univer­si­ties will be under­fi­nan­ced in the future. We have a struc­tu­ral problem: the number of students is incre­asing quicker than the funds available. In other words, we will need to think very carefully about how we fund our rese­arch in the future.

And this is where private dona­ti­ons help?

Private funding really has bene­fits: people want to donate money for a parti­cu­lar purpose, but these funds do not need to be earmarked for a parti­cu­lar area. A donor who wants to help support the envi­ron­ment can choose to engage in one of the many envi­ron­ment-rela­ted topics that UZH researches.

What are the advan­ta­ges of the university’s own foun­da­tion, the UZH Foundation?

A prac­ti­cal reason is that it can accept and manage funds in a diffe­rent way from the univer­sity, as an insti­tu­tion under public law. The foun­da­tion is home to bona fide fund­rai­sing experts. That’s to our bene­fit. They are able to raise funds on a sustainable level and manage the funds accordingly.

Why does the foun­da­tion also have sub-foundations?

Instead of mana­ging all the various foun­da­ti­ons sepa­ra­tely, we came up with the idea of brin­ging them toge­ther under the umbrella of the UZH Foun­da­tion. This means that the money can be mana­ged profes­sio­nally and admi­nis­tra­tion hand­led centrally.

Today, almost every univer­sity in Switz­er­land has their own foun­da­tion. Do they work together?

There are a large number of colla­bo­ra­ti­ons, parti­cu­larly if we want to fund major infra­struc­ture or large-scale projects. I think targe­ted colla­bo­ra­tive work will be very important in the future.

The Univer­sity of St. Gallen [HSG] funds half its over­all budget from private sources. What’s the situa­tion at UZH?

At UZH, the propor­tion of private funding is compa­ra­tively small. Unlike HSG, we are a ‘full-service univer­sity’, offe­ring the full range of subjects. Funding from the canton and fede­ral govern­ment makes up about 75% of our budget, with 25% being compe­ti­tive third-party funds, as they are known. They come from the Swiss Natio­nal Fund SNF, foun­da­ti­ons, private indi­vi­du­als and EU program­mes, and have seen the grea­test increase until now.

With the collapse of the EU frame­work agree­ment, parti­ci­pa­tion in Hori­zon is at risk. Will this have an impact on Switz­er­land as a loca­tion for research?

Switz­er­land was a fully asso­cia­ted third coun­try for Hori­zon 2020, but this is not the case for its succes­sor, Hori­zon Europe. This has tangi­ble conse­quen­ces: Swiss rese­ar­chers are no longer able to submit projects within the EU. With the collapse of the frame­work agree­ment, Switz­er­land as a rese­arch loca­tion has been remo­ved from Euro­pean compe­ti­tion. The ques­tion is, who we are going to compete with now? Switz­er­land could choose any other coun­try with which to launch a compe­ti­tive rese­arch programme, but these count­ries have not exactly waited for us. Switz­er­land is curr­ently alone in the rese­arch market, which is why we are losing our compe­ti­tive edge across Europe. It’s not just our repu­ta­tion that is lost, it’s also our colla­bo­ra­tion with all kinds of rese­ar­chers in the EU. And we are losing money, speci­fic third-party funding, which also co-finan­ces key infrastructure.

Photo: Marvin Zilm

What’s next?

Last Decem­ber, the Swiss parlia­ment promi­sed the money for Hori­zon Europe, and this money is in fact available. Howe­ver, poli­ti­cal action needs to be taken to release it. It’s important for those rese­ar­chers who have alre­ady submit­ted a project because they need the secu­rity that they can conti­nue with their work. Losing the funding for a year, or even two, would be a massive loss: we are talking about milli­ons that would just vanish.

A state of limbo?


Are univer­si­ties coming toge­ther so they can be heard?

Univer­si­ties are doing all kinds of things. At present, the most important acti­vity is deve­lo­ping an SNF safety net programme, desi­gned to support rese­ar­chers who have alre­ady star­ted their project appli­ca­ti­ons. They were taken out of compe­ti­tion at the time of writing.

And could foun­da­ti­ons and private funds bridge the gap?

Money from foun­da­ti­ons is very important, but it cannot bridge the gap that’s been created.

How loyal are UZH alumni?

UZH has a very strong alumni asso­cia­tion. In 2020, we laun­ched our pande­mic fund at short notice and they topped it up with a sizeable sum, show­ing their connec­tion to their alma mater. If we think about how many UZH students have become alumni, and are conti­nuing to do so, there’s still room to grow and we can streng­then this connec­tion further.

What does third-party funding mean for the university’s independence?

This inde­pen­dence is an exci­ting topic. Our upper­most goal is to under­take funda­men­tal rese­arch that is as free from influence as possi­ble. The univer­sity is most commit­ted to ideas for projects put forward by our own rese­ar­chers. We do not put them under pres­sure for projects to lead to products or bring tangi­ble bene­fits – apart from an increase in knowledge.

Some donors have an idea of what they want to support…

We guaran­tee free­dom of rese­arch at our insti­tu­tion: rese­ar­chers will always be allo­wed to publish their results, and third-party support is not permit­ted to influence our stra­tegy. If someone offers us money for a topic outside our rese­arch areas, we would turn it down: there’s no sense in beco­ming an oppor­tu­ni­stic univer­sity. As a full-service univer­sity, we can offer topics that are guaran­teed to be of inte­rest to any donor!

Does a code of conduct set out how you use donations?

There are requi­re­ments that certain contrac­tual condi­ti­ons are non-nego­tia­ble for dona­ti­ons; for exam­ple, free­dom of publication.

How about the trans­pa­rency of donations?

As far as trans­pa­rency goes, UZH is at the top of the table in Switz­er­land. We have a list of third-party funding that anyone can access, detail­ing every dona­tion above CHF 100,000. It is possi­ble for the orga­ni­sa­tion to remain anony­mous if the client does not want to be named.

What about trans­pa­rency for funded professorships?

All the chairs funded by foun­da­ti­ons or private indi­vi­du­als can be viewed online in the list of endo­wed professorships.

As presi­dent, how much of your work is taken up with fundraising?

About half a day a week. Howe­ver, there are grey areas at events where I repre­sent the univer­sity extern­ally and also speak to donors at the same time. UZH employs about 800 profes­sors and they handle their own marke­ting. They approach poten­tial funders inde­pendently, spre­a­ding our fund­rai­sing across a broad basis.

Is the money pooled toge­ther in the UZH Foundation?


Photo: Marvin Zilm

«We guaran­tee free­dom of rese­arch.»
Michael Schaep­man, presi­dent of the Univer­sity of Zurich

The youn­ger generation’s work is shaped by a grea­ter sense of colla­bo­ra­tion and parti­ci­pa­tion. Have you picked up on this shift at the university?

Yes. Today, many more people work colla­bo­ra­tively, in large consor­tia. How people under­take rese­arch has under­gone a funda­men­tal trans­for­ma­tion in many subjects. Today, more work happens colla­bo­ra­tively, with people thin­king in a more commu­nity-minded way. We are also respon­si­ble for ensu­ring our gradua­tes receive a good, modern educa­tion. After all, they would not find a job in the world of busi­ness if we just let them work quietly in a corner.

As a profes­sor, you spent many years as a rese­ar­cher. Do you miss it?

I really do. The role of presi­dent is a full-time posi­tion, but my rese­arch has not been comple­tely laid to rest. I gave up my profes­sor­ship, but the rese­arch group still exists. If I step down or if I’m not re-elec­ted, I could return and conti­nue my research…

…and dive back into your specia­list area.

(Laughs). Now, my specia­list area is the entire univer­sity and its 9,000 employees, plus the know­ledge about which of the university’s issues are rele­vant to the outside world.

So, in other words, you’re rese­ar­ching the university?

To a certain extent, yes, I am. It’s utterly fasci­na­ting: I can get a glim­pse of any area I like and I’m amazed every day by the sheer range of topics that people rese­arch at such a high level at UZH. It’s simply wonderful.

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