The SNSF funds 2000 international projects and fellowships abroad

The quantum physicist Daniel Kienzler sets up an experiment with hydrogen molecules at ETH Zurich.

Switzerland is among the frontrunners in global science also thanks to its strong outreach in Europe and the world. With its research funding schemes, the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) again made a strong contribution to international collaboration in 2018.

When Daniel Kienzler returned to Switzerland from his research stay in Boulder, Colorado, he was carrying a rucksack full of ideas. "As a postdoc in the USA, I was able to broaden my horizons and establish many new contacts within the research community," the 35-year-old physicist is happy to report. "And I developed a number of ideas for future projects." Daniel Kienzler was researching quantum logic operations at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. His goal: building quantum computers that are suitable for practical applications. His visit was largely financed by an SNSF fellowship.

Essential for top-flight research

“Internationality is crucial to Swiss research,” says Jean-Luc Barras, head of the SNSF’s International Co-operation division. “In today’s world, top-flight research is only possible if there is ongoing dialogue with partners in other countries.”

The SNSF has therefore been promoting cross-border collaboration for a long time. It supports joint projects by researchers in Switzerland and abroad. It takes part in multinational programmes and in European joint programmes. It enables researchers to spend time abroad by awarding fellowships to doctoral students and postdocs like Daniel Kienzler.

At the end of 2018, the SNSF was funding 2000 international projects and fellowships. Researchers also collaborate with colleagues abroad in a large number of other projects. “Thanks to SNSF funding, thousands of Swiss scientists have their research networks throughout the world,” says Jean-Luc Barras. “That enables them to incorporate the latest findings and trends into their projects and deliver high-quality research.” The SNSF thus makes a key contribution to maintaining Switzerland’s leading position in scientific research – which is one of the goals of the new international education, research and innovation strategy adopted by the Federal Council in 2018.

Fresh impetus

The fellowship that Daniel Kienzler received was key in bringing fresh impetus to his scientific career. His new project has passed the SNSF’s strict selection procedure and been awarded one of the coveted Ambizione grants. Since November 2018, Kienzler – assisted by a doctoral student – has been setting up an experiment to monitor hydrogen molecules using quantum logic methods at ETH Zurich. In the course of his work, he has exchanged information with researchers in Switzerland, Germany, France, the United Kingdom and USA. “This project would never have happened if I hadn’t gone to Boulder.”

"Profile 2018-2019" - annual report of the SNSF

3000 new projects in 2018

Researchers who wish to receive funding from the SNSF must prevail against their rivals in an evaluation process based on competition. In 2018, the SNSF funded 2958 new projects with a total amount of over 1.1 billion francs, or 385,000 francs on average. Approximately 70 per cent of the money is used to finance the salaries of young researchers. In doing so, the SNSF is promoting the next generation of highly qualified professionals for universities, the private economy and public administration.

At year-end 2018, there were 6500 ongoing SNSF projects, involving 16,300 researchers from universities, the ETH Domain, universities of applied sciences, universities of teacher education and other institutions.

More money for research funding

The Swiss government needs to increase its expenditure for research funding in the coming years. This is the view that Christine Bulliard-Marbach (CVP, Fribourg) and Felix Müri (SVP, Lucerne) from the National Council's Science, Education and Culture Committee (SECC) share with Matthias Egger, the president of the National Research Council of the SNSF. "Research is of key importance to Switzerland," says SECC president Christine Bulliard-Marbach in a conversation published in the "Profile 2018-2019", the SNSF's annual report. Felix Müri says that research expenditure needs to be increased to a certain extent. Matthias Egger brings attention to the fact that the competition is by no means asleep. "China is investing enormous sums in research, while the EU is aiming to double its research budget." Christine Bulliard-Marbach says with conviction: "If Switzerland wants to compete internationally, it has no option than to put the money to do so into the EU’s funding pot, on top of the money the SNSF receives." But how much is financially acceptable? Matthias Egger says: "Israel spends substantially more on research than Switzerland. So we still have plenty of headroom.” But for Felix Müri it is clear that the government isn't going to allocate much more money to research promotion overnight. It just isn't realistic, he says.

Swiss research needs Europe

Horizon Europe, the next European research framework programme, is due to start in 2021. In the annual report, the SNSF Director, Angelika Kalt, explains how important it is for Switzerland to participate. The programme will facilitate cooperation on topics such as health or climate change and focus on innovation, which will open up opportunities for SMEs and start-ups. Competing with the best researchers in Europe is of great importance for Swiss science.

Would our participation in Horizon Europe be at risk if Switzerland and the EU did not sign an institutional framework agreement? The framework agreement is not directly linked to Horizon Europe, says Angelika Kalt. All the same, we could expect serious consequences, she adds. When the mass immigration initiative was accepted in 2014, the EU partially excluded Switzerland from the research framework programme Horizon 2020. For a return to full association, Switzerland had to wait till 2017. The partial exclusion had a harmful effect on research in Switzerland.

"We cannot replace European collaboration and competition with national schemes," says Angelika Kalt. "We need both SNSF funding and European funding: in the absence of national funding, Swiss research would be less competitive. In the absence of European funding, Swiss research would lack international integration and the necessary quality standards."


  • Picure: (JPEG) The quantum physicist Daniel Kienzler is setting up an experiment with hydrogen molecules at ETH Zurich. The idea for the experiment formed in his mind during his research stay in the USA, which was largely funded by an SNSF fellowship. © Zeljko Gataric


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