To Moscow and back

04/Jun/2014

This picture shows the graphic "Kooperation mit Osteuropa" © SNF

For a quarter of a century, the research programme ‘Scopes’ has been supporting scientific collaborations between Switzerland and countries in Eastern Europe. Interest in its ability to promote research remains undimmed. By Simon Koechlin

It’s been 25 years since the fall of the Iron Curtain that for decades divided Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union from the West. It was a historic moment, and the beginning of a difficult process for the former communist countries. From one day to the next they had to switch from a planned economy to a market economy. Their industries suddenly had to cope with global competition. This led to economic breakdown in many Eastern European countries. It was in this context that the Swiss parliament – along with other governments in Western Europe – provided a loan to help support those countries that were under economic duress. "The idea arose early on that we could use part of the promised money to strengthen the scientific scene in the countries affected", says Evelyne Glättli of the International Co-operation Division of the SNSF. Glättli coordinates the Scopes (Scientific Co-operation between Eastern Europe and Switzerland) programme that the SNSF launched in 1990 in cooperation with the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), using money from the loan for Eastern Europe.

Ideological slant

"Scopes started on a very small scale", says Glättli. Until 1995 it was supporting numerous small research projects, personnel exchanges and conference visits. The programme was initially financed by the SDC alone. From the mid-1990s onwards, however, interest in the programme grew considerably and it got bigger accordingly – today it is financed by the SNSF and the SDC together, roughly half-and-half. The range of support on offer has also broadened. Today, two areas receive most of the funding: joint research projects that bring Eastern European and Swiss scientists together, and institutional partnerships in which Swiss researchers support colleagues in Eastern Europe who are furthering the modernisation of their research environment.

During the Cold War, socialist countries organised their science and research differently from Western Europe, says Glättli. Basic research was carried out by state academies. Hardly any research at all was done at universities. The focus there was teaching, and it had a strong ideological slant. Separate institutes carried out research in specific sectors – concentrating on agriculture, for example. "There was little exchange between the academies, universities and institutes", says Glättli. "And they were often inefficient and ineffective in both their organisation and their procedures. A single institute could have hundreds of people in its employment". However, Eastern Europe did have excellent researchers. Russia, for example, has a long tradition as a scientific world power.

Enriching partnerships

"That is why joint projects with Eastern European colleagues are also interesting for researchers from Switzerland", says Glättli. In the natural sciences and engineering particularly it can be rewarding to work with researchers in Eastern Europe, where there are many talented young people. But there are also other reasons that the Scopes programme is of interest to Swiss researchers. For example, it enables them to engage in research that cannot be carried out otherwise. In Eastern Europe there are archives, ecosystems and patient groups that simply do not exist in Switzerland.

According to Glättli, Scopes projects often emerge out of existing partnerships or contacts between individual researchers in Eastern Europe and Switzerland. There are quite a few researchers among the Swiss project partners who originally came from Eastern Europe themselves and who still maintain contact with their lands of origin. One example is Mikhail Shaposhnikov, who is now at the Laboratory of Particle Physics and Cosmology at EPFL. Originally from Russia, he has already run two Scopes projects with colleagues from his former homeland and Eastern European countries. He conducted research in the Soviet Union until 1991 and still knows lots of scientists from his time there. And because Eastern Bloc countries also carried out excellent research in his field, he says, it was "quite natural" that he should get back in touch with his former colleagues and set up Scopes projects, which he qualifies as "very successful". The financial support from Scopes was also important to his Eastern European partners. "Postdocs and researchers earn so little in Russia, Ukraine and Georgia that they can barely live from their salaries and often have to take on jobs on the side too. Thanks to Scopes, the postdocs participating in the projects were able to concentrate fully on their science". For the Swiss project partners it was interesting "to have enthusiastic young researchers here to work with us".

Costs not covered

The story is similar for Thomas Breu from the Centre for Development and Environment (CDE) at the University of Bern, as his existing contacts also led to a Scopes project. He worked for several years with partners from Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan at the National Centre of Competence in Research (NCCR) ‘North-South’. This offered him the opportunity to cement these partnerships through a project in which researchers from these two Central Asian countries were trained to use geographical information systems. "We profited from it too", he says. For example, Swiss students learnt a lot about the local challenges in these countries. And with projects like that, you can maintain a presence on the ground and access up-to-date information. However, it has to be said that such projects don’t cover the costs on the Swiss side, Breu admits.

Glättli confirms that Scopes projects are financially less attractive to Swiss researchers. "The larger part of the money allocated goes to the project partners in Eastern Europe", she says. Swiss researchers are only paid to cover extra costs such as travel expenses. All the same, Scopes has proven very popular – last year alone they received some 350 applications. "We reckoned on about 200", says Glättli. As a result, less than 20 percent were approved, and many good projects had to be turned down. In comparison to other funding institutions with similar programmes, Scopes stands out because of the unusually high number of countries involved. Many EU countries restrict their projects to one country or region, e.g., Central Asia. In the course of the past 25 years, the Scopes focus areas have continually shifted. Recently, the Balkan states have joined in, along with South Caucasus and the Central Asian countries. Today Serbia and Georgia are among the most frequent Scopes partners, alongside Russia, Ukraine, Bulgaria and Romania. "Serbia seems to have realised how important research is for the development of a country", says Glättli. Serbian researchers who get support from Scopes are given extra funding by their own state as a ‘reward’.

In the last 25 years, hundreds of Scopes projects have helped science advance in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. It’s now a matter of getting research in Eastern Europe into the right shape so that the researchers there can participate in EU programmes, says Glättli. Not all scientists are accustomed to filling out the necessary applications and to getting their results published in scientific journals. And even a quarter of a century after the fall of the Wall, the structures in many countries bear no comparison with those in Western Europe. "The teams we support form a kind of germ cell that instigates change", says Glättli. And every successive project can offer ideal conditions for strengthening local skills and establishing better networks.

(From "Horizons" No. 101, June 2014)

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