• 28.03.2019
  • News
  • Swiss Academy of Sciences

What large-scale research facilities does Switzerland need?

Jürg Pfister, Secretary general of SCNAT
Image: Andres Jordi, SCNAT
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Jürg Pfister, Secretary general of SCNAT
Jürg Pfister, Secretary general of SCNAT (Image: Andres Jordi, SCNAT)

The Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences have been requested by the Confederation to prepare roadmaps for research infrastructures for the various scientific fields. These roadmaps will provide a basis for decision-making on the allocation of federal funding for costly research facilities over the period 2025–2028. SCNAT is responsible for implementing this new procedure within the Swiss Academies, and Secretary General Jürg Pfister believes that it offers the scientific community an opportunity for wider involvement.

Why are roadmaps for research infrastructures necessary?

National and international large-scale facilities such as the particle accelerators at the Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI) in Villigen or at CERN in Geneva are immensely important for Switzerland as a research location. They enable scientists in this country to carry out world-class research. Facilities in Switzerland make the country attractive for researchers from abroad and promote the establishment of international networks. In order to maintain this excellent environment – and because research infrastructures are expensive to develop and maintain – it’s essential that there should be long-term planning and a comprehensive basis for decision-making. Here, the roadmaps prepared for individual fields make an important contribution.

How does this planning proceed?

Responsibility lies with the State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation (SERI). Every four years, it prepares the “Swiss Roadmap for Research Infrastructures” (RI). This provides a basis for decision-making on the investment of federal funds in research facilities of national interest. The Roadmap is integrated into the ERI Dispatch, which the Federal Council then submits to Parliament for approval. Work on the 2019 Roadmap has been completed, and it is due to be published in the early summer.

With its request to SCNAT, the SERI has already initiated the planning process for the 2023 Roadmap. SCNAT is to determine what research infrastructures will be required in the various scientific fields in the future, and to prioritise these from a scientific viewpoint. The SERI will evaluate the roadmaps for the various fields together with other actors. Only then will it become clear which research infrastructures are to be included in the 2023 Roadmap and then, possibly, in the ERI Dispatch 2025–2028.

What makes SCNAT suitable for this task?

The 2023 Roadmap should provide an overall picture of the needs of the disciplines concerned, not just those of individual institutions. As a national network, SCNAT represents the entire scientific research community. It’s thus ideally suited to mobilise the relevant actors in the various disciplines. We see ourselves as a neutral platform, acting independently of the research institutions. In the present case, we serve as a bridge between research and policymaking. Ultimately, it’s a matter of scientific “early recognition” – one of the responsibilities assigned to us by law as a research funding organisation. The fact that, since 2011, SCNAT has already successfully established a roadmap process for the disciplines of mathematics, astronomy and physics – thereby supporting the Swiss RI Roadmap – is doubtless one of the reasons why we’ve been given this task by the SERI.

How does this process work?

The SCNAT Platform “Mathematics, Astronomy and Physics” (MAP) has instituted regular round-table discussions, involving research representatives, the SERI, the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) and research infrastructure funding organisations. The round table is designed to identify needs and assess their relevance, as well as recognising problems at an early stage. In this ongoing dialogue, it also becomes apparent which fields require specific roadmaps. In the MAP area, for example, these are particle physics, astronomy and condensed matter physics. Each specialist community is then responsible for ensuring that a field-specific roadmap is prepared.

What are the advantages of this approach?

On the one hand, the Confederation and the institutions concerned are made aware of emerging needs in good time and can take appropriate action in advance. On the other hand, the round table gives the scientific community an opportunity to be actively involved in the planning and realisation of research infrastructures. What is central to this process is the setting of priorities by science itself. The idea is not simply to produce a wish list, which couldn’t be financed anyway. Rather, the aim is to reach agreement on what – from a scientific perspective – are the most important national and international research infrastructures required by the field in question. That’s what the various communities have to do when they prepare their roadmaps. Only they can assess the scientific relevance of research infrastructures. Whether this procedure which has been successfully adopted in the MAP area is also suitable for disciplines such as biology, geosciences and chemistry remains to be seen.

What challenges arise in those areas?

The MAP community is effectively networked and had to organise itself decades ago – otherwise major facilities like those at CERN or PSI would not have been possible. But in biology, geosciences and chemistry, there are lots of individual research groups competing with each other. They are less used to joining forces to pursue overarching interests, and to date this has been less necessary than, for example, in particle physics. This means it’s challenging to bring the diverse voices together. So what we need to do now is to rapidly identify the key actors, mobilise them and get them around a table. A key role in this process will be played by the SCNAT Platforms Biology, Geosciences and Chemistry, which have close contacts with the professional associations. I’m confident that we’ll succeed. The initial indications are that the relevant stakeholders recognise the importance of – and the opportunities associated with – this enterprise and wish to contribute.

What about the timeframe?

It’s fairly tight. An SCNAT working group including representatives of the Platforms MAP, Biology, Chemistry and Geosciences has started sounding out the research networks. The group is chaired by Professor Hans Rudolf Ott of ETH Zurich, who established the MAP round table. The aim is to involve those disciplines and individuals with an interest in the research infrastructures in question. Round tables will then, where necessary, be instituted for particular fields, such as geosciences, where the needs of each specialist community can be discussed. On this basis, the various communities can develop their own roadmap proposals. By the end of 2020, at the earliest, the initial drafts are to be made available to the SERI.

By autumn 2019, the SERI will announce the subsequent procedure for the evaluation and consolidation of this input in the preparation of the 2023 Roadmap. An important role will presumably also be played by the SNSF, the ETH Board and swissuniversities – for example, in evaluating the quality and feasibility of the proposed research infrastructures.

Interview: Andres Jordi, SCNAT

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