Emerging research nations: sharing in the momentum

South Africa, India and Brazil are just three of the countries where bilateral programmes are enabling Swiss researchers to conduct joint projects with research partners in selected countries.

New science nations have emerged around the world in recent years. This development offers Swiss researchers attractive opportunities for international cooperation. To fund these opportunities, the SNSF is involved in a series of bilateral programmes financed by the State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation (SERI). These support joint projects in which each participating country funds the work of its own researchers. “It’s long ceased to be a case of us sharing our knowledge with the others,” says Ron Stoop, a professor at the University of Lausanne and Lausanne University Hospital who is conducting research into translational neuroscience. “What’s actually happening is that the incredible momentum in these regions is benefiting us in many fields.”

A surprising discovery in South Africa

Ron Stoop knows what he’s talking about. He has been involved in international science cooperation since he went abroad to do research for his Master’s degree in the 1980s, and has conducted a large number of projects with partners around the world. The most recent of these, which took him to South Africa as part of a bilateral programme, started with a surprise. Stoop was giving a presentation on his work on the amygdala – an alarm centre in the brain that plays a major role in fear – at a conference in Berlin. “After I’d finished, a colleague came up and asked if I’d be interested in researching a group of people with no amygdala,” he explains. Until that point, such patients had been extremely rare. However, the colleague had discovered by chance that the rare gene mutation responsible for the loss of the amygdala is much more common in South Africa. The mutation had been transmitted across generations in a group that was relatively isolated from the rest of the population.

It was not long before Ron Stoop teamed up with a South African researcher to begin a groundbreaking project as part of the bilateral programme between Switzerland and South Africa. “They have excellent technology for imaging the human brain in Cape Town,” Stoop says. “Combining that with various psychological tests, we were able to investigate the role of the amygdala in fear as well as in social cooperation.”

Digital twins in Indian museums

Sarah Kenderdine is also in the middle of conducting research as part of a bilateral programme. The professor of experimental museology at EPFL is working with Indian researchers to investigate how high-fidelity virtual copies and use of the blockchain for cultural treasures can help preserve them and make them accessible and yet secure. As a specialist in what are known as digital twins, she has been scanning some 90 of the most important Buddhist sculptures in India since December 2023. Her project partners then intend to exhibit the sculptures as original-size, high-resolution projections in various museums in India and investigate the public’s reactions. “It’s creating new ways of giving people access to these treasures, and even includes interactive elements,” Sarah Kenderdine tells us. “Such technologies are gaining importance in light of the discussion on whether cultural artefacts with colonial origins should be returned.”

In the end, it’s all about rapport

Like Ron Stoop, Sarah Kenderdine already had extensive international experience before embarking on her current project. This includes leading a research group in Hong Kong and setting up a museum in India. Is this type of background necessary to successfully conduct a project under a bilateral programme? “It can be helpful,” says Ron Stoop, “but it’s definitely not essential. Nowadays there are plenty of opportunities to meet interesting researchers from these countries, say at conferences. And before you throw yourself into a major joint project, you can do something like organising a workshop together. That will quickly show you whether cooperation is likely to be successful.” Sarah Kenderdine agrees: “In the end, it's always about the individual people and the rapport between them,” she says. “At all events, there’s definitely no shortage of excellent, highly motivated researchers in these countries who are delighted to join international projects. It’s never been so easy to link up to them. If you’re interested yourself, I would recommend this type of cooperation wholeheartedly.”

The bilateral programmes: financed by the government, run by the SNSF

The bilateral programmes are part of the Swiss government’s efforts to promote scientific cooperation with countries that have strong or promising research potential. As part of these programmes, the SNSF and its partner organisations each fund their own researchers in transnational projects. Calls for proposals will be launched with Vietnam and India in 2024. Details of these calls and the application process in general can be found on the bilateral programmes web page.