"Openness was and is crucial to Switzerland's success"
At its annual conference (Séance de Réflexion), the Research Council of the SNSF discussed some highly topical subjects: following an appeal by Councillor of States Felix Gutzwiller to actively support Switzerland's openness as a hub of knowledge and research, attention turned to the search for exoplanets and gender equality in research funding.
The first day of this year's Séance de Réflexion at the Kursaal in Berne started with two very different talks on topics of current interest. The renowned expert in preventive medicine, Felix Gutzwiller, began his talk by commenting on the current science policy challenges faced by Switzerland, particularly against the backdrop of the successful mass immigration initiative earlier this year. Subsequently, the internationally acclaimed astrophysicist Michel Mayor combined the current intensive search for exoplanets with old philosophical questions about research and research funding.
"Science must make itself heard more effectively"
According to Gutzwiller, researchers in Switzerland have benefited from favourable conditions until now: legal security, reliable financing, access to the world's brightest minds, international cooperation. "Thanks to these factors, Switzerland ranks among the most competitive and innovative countries in the world today," the former SNSF Research Councillor stressed at the beginning of his speech. And the most crucial factor in Switzerland's success as a hub of research and innovation was its openness to the world. "This openness is today under threat and it is up to us to come to its defence," said Gutzwiller emphatically. The acceptance of the mass immigration initiative posed serious problems for research in Switzerland. It was by no means sure that Switzerland would remain capable of recruiting the best minds from around the world. "The voice of science and research should make itself heard more effectively in Swiss society," he asserted. Strong commitment from the ERI institutions and the researchers themselves was very important, particularly in view of the next upcoming challenge, the vote on the Ecopop popular initiative at the end of November. In the medium- and long-term, all parties must support the struggle to keep Swiss research open.
When a member of the audience raised the question how science could increase its influence on politics, with a twinkle in his eye Gutzwiller encouraged the assembled Research Councillors to follow his example: "When, after publishing your first hundred or so papers, you begin to realise that you may not be destined to win the Nobel Prize after all, why not do what I did: go into politics and forward the cause of science!" This was all the more important as very few current members of parliament had close links to research: "I am one of the few there with more than just a vague idea of what the word life sciences actually signifies, although they like to emphasise its importance for Switzerland.
Michel Mayor: an astrophysicist in "Nature's 10"
Subsequently, the astrophysicist Michel Mayor presented his research on extrasolar planets. Last year, the highly regarded professor at Geneva University's Department of Astronomy made international headlines when he discovered the exoplanet Kepler 78b, the most Earth-like of all known planets outside our solar system in terms of density and size. The science journal "Nature" included him in their list of the ten most important scientists of 2013. In 1995, he and Didier Queloz, a member of his team, had been the first to discover a planet outside our solar system that orbits around a sun-like star. According to Mayor, this triggered a boom in planetary research: "Meanwhile over 1800 exoplanets and more than 1100 planetary systems have been discovered by using more sophisticated spectrographs."
A Research Councillor asked Mayor how he explained the meaning and purpose of his basic research to politicians more interested in direct practical uses. "Planetary research inspires people to dream and seeks to answer fundamental questions about life and existence that have fascinated humans since ancient times." The popularity of his public lectures proved that this research also appealed to young people and kindled their enthusiasm for science: "This generates support for basic research throughout society!" Finally, Mayor stressed the benefits of the National Centre of Competence in Research PlanetS, which was launched earlier this year: "It is a very good instrument for coordinating planetary research in Switzerland and supporting the close collaboration of higher education institutions in this field."
Conference on "Gender and Excellence" with roundtable
The second day of the Séance de Réflexion was devoted to gender equality in research funding. The conference on "Gender and Excellence", featuring international speakers, started with a speech by Susan Gasser, director of the Friedrich Miescher Institute and professor at the University of Basel, who is also president of the new SNSF Gender Equality Commission. This was followed by two further introductory talks by Claartje Vinkenburg (professor at VU Amsterdam) and Priyamvada Natarajan (professor at Yale University). Susan Gasser then chaired a panel discussion on "Gender and Excellence: Challenges in Research Funding", in which the speakers took part along with young researchers and the president of the National Research Council, Martin Vetterli. The SNSF will report separately on the discussions and results of the conference in a few days time.