Making savings: Parliament should reward risks

06/Apr/2016

By Maurice Campagna

(From "Horizons" no. 108 March 2016)​​​

CampagnaThe federal government, the cantons and the local authorities have to save money. Saving money on its own isn't a bad thing. In Italian, it's described as 'clearing away the dead wood to let new wood grow'. Cost-cutting exercises are always a good opportunity to ponder what really matters. Cutting some old things can make space for the new.

Freedom in teaching and research – 'autonomy' – is the basic pillar of the academic world. Our best lecturers and researchers orient themselves according to research topics that are largely determined on an international level.

Little Switzerland always has to ask itself what it can manage, where it should invest its money best, and whether it might make sense to restructure its portfolio. These aren't easy questions, and the answers to them are full of risks. And yet no approach can be taboo. Japan, for example, recently announced a reorientation of both its humanities and its nuclear fusion research.

So the Swiss parliament is confronted with the fact that, when seen in isolation and on a short-term basis, investment in education and research is a risky business. Despite the acceleration in research processes (thanks to simulations with powerful computers, for example), it's usually still impossible to achieve areasconcrete results within the space of a single parliamentary term. And it's still even less probable that those results be turned into profitable, practical applications within the same timeframe.

So investing in education and research needs patience. The federal government and the cantons should first and foremost create fertile ground for excellent research, a place where the best support goes to those researchers who have an 'inner fire', regardless of whether their path is long and arduous. If young, motivated researchers are ready to invest their best creative years in their work – often alongside older, more experienced colleagues – then they too are undertaking a considerable risk. This risk should be rewarded by the funding authorities.

Parliament isn't, however, just confronted by the imponderabilities of education and research, it also has to keep an eye on the whole federal budget beyond the timescale of its own political activities. It doesn't help that researchers are often clumsy about marketing themselves when compared with, say, the professionalism of the agricultural sector. But is it really sensible to make harsh cuts in investments that have been planned in education, research and innovation? At a time when we should be investing most in our best minds? Wouldn't the image of our country suffer irreversibly if such cuts were made, especially when they affect young, top-class talent?

 

Maurice Campagna became President of the Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences on 1 January 2016.