New National Centres of Competence in Research get under way

Their topics range from antibiotics to quantum computers: the six new National Centres of Competence in Research will bring research forward thanks to their interdisciplinary work. Despite the pandemic, they got under way in summer 2020.

The SNSF launches National Centres of Competence in Research (NCCRs) only every five to six years. It receives this mandate from the Swiss State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation (SERI). The NCCRs aim to push forward cutting edge science on topics of strategic importance; they bring together different institutions and disciplines. In December 2019, Federal Councillor Guy Parmelin announced six new NCCRs. The selection was based on a scientific evaluation by the SNSF and an assessment by the government focusing on research policies and higher education policies. The new NCCRs are the fifth series of this funding scheme. All had started by August 2020.

NCCR "AntiResist": innovative treatment methods

Antibiotics are indispensable in modern medicine, for example when it comes to treating serious bacterial infections such as blood poisoning. But what can be done if more and more pathogens become resistant to antibiotics? The NCCR "AntiResist" wants to further our understanding on how pathogens behave in the human body. "Our aim is to bring about a paradigm shift in antibiotic research," says Christoph Dehio, director of the NCCR. "We expect to discover basic new mechanisms and thereby contribute to innovative therapies."

NCCR "Catalysis": sustainable chemistry

Most people don't think about it, but chemistry is all around us. Products such as fuel, fertiliser or appliances are based on chemical reactions and transformations. Most products are made using catalysis, i.e. a catalyst is employed to increase the speed of the reaction. The NCCR "Catalysis" is expected to produce insights that will make chemical processes and products as well as the chemical industry as a whole more sustainable, resource efficient and CO2 neutral.

NCCR "Dependable Ubiquitous Automation": intelligent management

Thanks to the digital transformation, it has become possible to automate processes in industry, cities and electricity grids. But such intelligent systems need to become more reliable and more flexible. This is the topic of the NCCR "Dependable Ubiquitous Automation". In one of the central projects of this NCCR, researchers will develop an automated, decentralised system to manage energy in a neighbourhood or town. This will enable them to test first hand how such applications affect people and the economy.

NCCR "Evolving Language": origin and future of language

Mindreading is quite common in science fiction films - but could it also happen in reality? Taking inspiration from such questions, researchers of the NCCR "Evolving Language" plan to explore the development of language like no other institution before them. They want to find out more about the biological requirements of language and investigate how language is affected by digitisation. The results are expected to improve therapeutic approaches to speech disorders and the development of complex voice recognition technology.

NCCR "Microbiomes": using microorganisms

Microbial communities, so-called microbiomes, are significant for agriculture, biodiversity and human health. Today we only know 15% of the microorganisms that make up biomes. The NCCR "Microbiomes" explores the interaction of these organisms in humans, plants and the environment. In the medium term, the results could lead to important new applications. For example, we know that specifically composed microbiomes protect people from infection or cleanse environments that have been polluted in an environmental disaster.

NCCR "SPIN": development of quantum computers

Accelerated digitisation is made possible by quantum computers. They are the most powerful computers imaginable. Thanks to their power, they can solve mathematical problems or simulate complex processes that cannot be computed by current machines. However, it remains a great challenge to produce functioning quantum computers. The NCCR "SPIN" takes up this challenge. "The goal is very ambitious," says director Richard J. Warburton. "The path will be long and difficult. But we are motivated by the fact that our results could open up enormous opportunities in the future."

On course despite COVID-19

The fifth series of NCCRs includes 146 research groups at 40 institutions. The home institutions of the NCCRs are the Universities of Basel, Geneva, Lausanne and Zurich as well as EPF Lausanne and ETH Zurich. Getting all NCCRs under way this summer was a challenge. "It is a great achievement that the researchers have been able to get started despite the COVID-19 pandemic," says Dimitri Sudan, head of the Programmes division of the SNSF. "We are excited about the results we will be seeing in the next few years. Switzerland will greatly benefit from them."

In the first phase between 2020 and 2023, the government will be investing 100 million francs in the NCCRs. The higher education institutions and industry will contribute further funding. The NCCRs have a maximum duration of twelve years.

Evaluating the evaluation

The final selection of the National Centres of Competence in Research is made by the government. The SNSF is involved in the first step of the selection process, during which it prepares a shortlist of the most promising proposals, applying purely scientific criteria. In 2019, the government received a list of eleven proposals that were selected from over 50 submitted. It decided to finance six of them.

The quality of the evaluation procedure is key for the results of the NCCR and the impact of the entire programme. For this reason, in 2016, the SNSF employed a Norwegian research institute to analyse the evaluation procedure of the fourth series. It implemented the recommendations for the fifth series of NCCRs. What has this improved? The Nordic Institute for Studies in Innovation, Research and Education (NIFU) will assess this now in a second study. This will provide the SNSF with more insights into how to further improve the procedure for future NCCR calls. The results of the study will be presented in 2021.