Switzerland is very competitive when it comes to research and innovation. Public funding for research relies primarily on the personal initiative of researchers, competitive dynamics and international cooperation. The corona crisis is a good example of how researchers at higher education institutions and research institutes apply their knowledge and skills in the service of policies, society and the economy. This special situation calls for additional nationally coordinated measures to support research such as the creation of the ‘Swiss National Covid-19 Science Task Force’ or the rapid launch of the new National Research Programme ‘Covid-19’.
Confidence and trust in proven principles and structures
NRP 78 ‘Covid-19’
There is a pressing need for biomedical and clinical research to better understand how the new coronavirus is transmitted, what effects it has and how it can be treated (diagnostics and therapeutics) – so that targeted measures can be taken against it. Based on national and international recommendations, the Federal Council mandated the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) on 16 April to issue a call for tenders for the National Research Programme ‘Covid-19’. The call for tenders has now been issued. The research is scheduled to run for a period of 24 months and has a total budget of CHF 20 million to be drawn from existing funds.
Why was the NRP format chosen as a funding mechanism?
National Research Programmes (NRPs) are intended to develop solutions to urgent social or economic problems. Great importance is given to ensuring that research findings are actionable. In addition, individual NRP projects are pursued within a thematic context and implemented in a coordinated manner with other projects in the respective NRP (i.e. handling of overarching questions in thematic clusters, data exchange, methodological seminars, exchange of interim and final results, and cooperation in programme summaries).
A high-profile scientific advisory body
The Confederation intends to tap the potential of the Swiss research community to an even larger extent in the current crisis and to work with it to find the best mays to handle the pandemic. At the end of March, the Federal Council Coronavirus Crisis Unit (KSBC) therefore asked SERI, the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH) as well as the heads of the SNSF, the ETH Board, the Swiss Conference of Rectors of Higher Education Institutions (swissuniversities) and the Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences to set up the ‘Swiss National Covid-19 Science Task Force’, which is comprised of proven experts from the relevant fields.
The ‘Swiss National Covid-19 Science Task Force’ has been given the following mandate:
- To advise and assist federal and cantonal policymakers by providing them with the latest scientific knowledge.
- To identify research areas and opportunities where Swiss researchers can quickly contribute significantly to understanding and combating Covid-19.
- To explore innovation opportunities where scientific findings could rapidly lead to new products, processes or services to solve the Covid-19 pandemic.
The ‘Swiss National Covid-19 Science Task Force’ consists of ten expert groups, each comprised of about six scientists and a coordinating advisory panel. These expert groups will draft policy briefs covering urgent matters relating to the coronavirus crisis. These policy briefs will be made publicly available on the task force’s website.
What will NRP 78 ‘Covid-19’ cover?
The aim is to channel as much available national research expertise as possible and to bundle this expertise into larger projects through research networks. This should enable results to be obtained as quickly as possible and corresponding recommendations and proposed solutions to be presented on how best to tackle the corona crisis in Switzerland.
At the same time, this NRP will ensure that the special measures already being taken at international level are aligned with research and innovation initiatives being taken by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the European Union. This will be achieved first of all through the targeted use of European and international networks in the relevant or urgent research areas, and secondly through the exchange of knowledge and findings between the various research groups.
What will the research priorities be?
- Basic knowledge of the SARS-CoV-2 virus (biology, immunology and immunopathology) to gain a better understanding of the illness;
- New approaches in epidemiology and prevention of Covid-19 infections;
- Research and development of new vaccines and innovative diagnostics for the reliable detection of Covid-19;
- Clinical research and therapeutic interventions for Covid-19.
When can the first results be expected?
The SNSF is responsible for implementation of NRP 78 ‘Covid-19’. Following approval of NRP project proposals - in summer 2020 - the first NRP projects are expected to start in August. The new NRP is expected to run for a total period of 24 months. The NRP Steering Committee will ensure that implementation and use of research findings can take place as quickly as possible. The comprehensive project register on Covid-19 launched by the SNSF (see further information) and the requirement to make all research findings immediately available through open access will help in this regard.