Spark: again in high demand with young researchers


The SNSF’s Spark pilot scheme funds unconventional projects for a maximum of twelve months. Nearly 900 proposals were submitted in the second call.

The SNSF launched the Spark funding scheme in 2019 as a means of spotlighting original and innovative ideas for scientific projects. The first call of the pilot phase was a great success. A second call was launched at the beginning of 2020. At nearly 900, submissions were this year even more numerous than last year, when over 700 applications were submitted. "The response has exceeded all our expectations," says Director Angelika Kalt. "We are delighted that the Spark call has generated so much interest. This underscores the value of the pilot project."

Approximately 40% of the 891 applications concern biology and medicine, 30% the humanities and social sciences, and 30% mathematics, the natural sciences and engineering. Almost every fifth application was submitted by researchers working at a university of applied sciences or a university of teacher education. The share of female applicants was 39%.

Double-blind evaluation

The SNSF evaluates Spark applications using a double-blind process. It is the originality of the idea that counts. How many projects researchers have already led or how many publications they have under their belt are of minor importance in this funding scheme. For this reason, Spark is also suitable for young scientists, an aspect that is reflected in the fact that almost 61% of the applicants are under 40. Around 90% do not have a professorship and around 70% have never received financial support from the SNSF. "As in the first call, it is mainly young researchers and first-time applicants who have applied for funding," says Angelika Kalt. "We are thus not only promoting original research ideas, but effectively creating more diversity in research."

73 projects selected in first round

As about 30% of the submitted applications were inadequately anonymised (see box), the SNSF is conducting two evaluation rounds. It selected 73 projects from the first round. The projects will start between 1 September and 1 December 2020 and will last for a maximum of twelve months. The SNSF has awarded these projects grants worth 6.9 million francs in total.

The projects focus on a wide range of topics. Here are just three examples: within the scope of the World Climate Research Programme at the University of Bern, Martin Wegmann is studying the winter climate with the help of machine learning. How does news driven by an algorithm affect democracy? This is Alexander Trechsel's research topic at the University of Lucerne. Carmen Gonelle-Gispert at the University of Fribourg is investigating a new therapy for illnesses of the liver.

Budget of 10 million francs

The success rate in the first round came to approximately 13%, which is much lower than in 2019. Last year, the SNSF was able to use a reserve budget to finance further projects. In 2020 however, the originally planned budget of 10 million francs will cover both rounds of the evaluation.

The Spark pilot phase ends with this second call. The SNSF will now reassess the funding scheme and decide whether to offer it in the long term.

Inadequate anonymisation

The SNSF can only conduct a double-blind evaluation if the applications are fully anonymised. In approximately 30% of the applications, this was not the case. For this reason, only 578 of the 891 proposed projects were scientifically evaluated. The unusually high number of rejected applications suggested that the stringent anonymity requirements had not been fully understood. The SNSF subsequently revised the guidelines and invited the affected researchers to resubmit their - this time fully anonymised – applications in June 2020. 263 applicants took up the invitation. By the end of 2020, the SNSF will have concluded this evaluation round. The projects will start between 1 January and 1 April 2021.