Enlargement contribution and PROMYS: funding successful science in Central and Eastern Europe

© ©2019 Isabel Pavia

Since 2012, the SNSF has supported many research projects in countries of the enlarged EU. Ita Gruic from Zagreb and Edit Matyus from Budapest report on their experiences.

A total of 50 projects received funding from the SNSF as part of Switzerland's enlargement contribution for countries in Central and Eastern Europe. Researchers from Bulgaria, Croatia and Romania as well as from Switzerland were involved in the projects. An example of this is the collaboration between the biochemists Ita Gruic from the University of Zagreb and Nenad Ban from ETH Zurich. Together, they researched genetic processes that enable bacteria to develop resistance to antibiotics. "The combination of our different methods has enabled us to take a big step forward," says Ita Gruic. "We have shown how bacteria adapt protein structures that were previously considered almost unchangeable in such a way that new resistances emerge." This breakthrough was due not least to the flexibility of the SNSF: the work had been severely delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic but could be extended while staying within the original budget.

Pragmatic solutions

"I really appreciate how the SNSF, as far as possible, seeks pragmatic solutions that consistently put scientific progress first," says Ita Gruic. She also mentions that the project had access to other facilities at ETH Zurich beyond Nenad Ban's research group, when the need arose. While this is important for the successful research outcome, Ita Gruic also points to the more general benefits of the project: "Younger members of my group in particular have benefited a lot from their stays at ETH – both professionally and for their careers. And this in turn strengthens Croatian research as a whole."

ETH research – continued in Budapest

The SNSF also strengthened research capacities in countries of the enlarged EU with its initiative "Promotion of Young Researchers in Eastern Europe" (PROMYS). The programme was aimed at researchers who had studied or worked in Switzerland for at least two years and wanted to continue their careers in a Central or Eastern European EU member state. Edit Matyus reports on her experience with PROMYS: the quantum chemist has established a research group at her home university in Budapest in recent years thanks to SNSF funding. The group is developing new theoretical and computational approaches for the quantum mechanical description of electrons and atomic nuclei.

"Many of our key questions tie in with work that began more than ten years ago in the Laboratory for Physical Chemistry at ETH Zurich," says Edit Matyus. It was in this laboratory that the then 26-year-old spent her first extended stay abroad after completing her doctorate in Budapest. This was later followed by two years at Cambridge University. During this time, she became aware of the PROMYS funding programme. She saw the opportunity that the programme offered: to pursue her own research with stable funding over a relatively long period in her home country of Hungary, with the prospect of an interesting career opportunity. Edit Matyus applied successfully and started in 2016 – now with her own project – at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest.

Making the most of scientific freedom

"In the beginning especially, I was often in contact with Markus Reiher, the head of my group during my time at ETH Zurich," says the quantum chemist. "Because PROMYS also includes mentoring." Very soon she hired staff, students and post-docs. "My own team was born. With it, I pursued various avenues, making use of the scientific freedom afforded by the PROMYS grant." With success, as it turned out: Edit Matyus won a prestigious European grant on the strength of her SNSF-funded work, which will further advance her career.

New programmes within the scope of the second Swiss contribution

The SNSF awarded funding under the enlargement contribution on behalf of the SDC, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation. It financed the PROMYS projects on its own initiative and with its own funds. In the meantime, a total of 57 projects have either been completed or will be completed later this year. As part of the second Swiss contribution to selected EU member states, the SNSF will launch three additional funding programmes in 2023 and 2024, including a PROMYS programme. Information will follow soon.