Interview on Research Funding and Academic Career Development

“Promoting research that takes the long view”

The new TRANSFORM funding line accelerates structural change at UZH, while the university hospitals and higher education institutions are developing a central data management system under the umbrella of University Medicine Zurich (UMZH). We sat down with Beatrice Beck Schimmer, Vice President Medicine, and Elisabeth Stark, Vice President Research, to find out how UZH is supporting research in the long term.

“Networked research is more productive.”

Elisabeth Stark, Vice President Research

Beatrice Beck Schimmer, Vice President Medicine

UZH places great emphasis on priorities and networks in research funding and development. Why is that?

Elisabeth Stark: The resources for research funding at UZH are limited, which is why we want to deploy them as sustainably and effectively as possible rather than taking a scattergun approach. Our principle is to strengthen strengths. We provide targeted support to promote research that takes the long view.

Beatrice Beck Schimmer: By supporting priority areas, we allow researchers to pool their strengths and utilize synergies. New technologies and infrastructure should benefit as many researchers as possible. Research is more productive if groups collaborate in networks rather than working on similar questions in parallel.

Who decides which priorities to support?

Beatrice Beck Schimmer: The priority areas are not defined from above. Usually the impetus comes from researchers themselves. Priority areas emerge in fields where research effort is particularly great. Sometimes external factors also play a role in these processes. In the case of precision medicine, for example, a federal venture – the Swiss Personalized Health Network (SPHN) – has helped make this research field particularly dynamic.

Elisabeth Stark: Researchers themselves are best placed to know which questions and topics have particular potential. So the university research funding is not prescriptive in terms of content. However, projects must be interdisciplinary and cross-departmental to receive funding.

Why is interdisciplinarity and cross-departmental cooperation so important when setting priorities?

Elisabeth Stark: Because when working on complex questions, multi-perspectival approaches lead to more original and productive outcomes. We can only tackle the greatest challenges of our time if we think beyond disciplinary boundaries. Besides, interdisciplinary research priorities mean that departments and faculties jointly develop and use resources and structures.

Beatrice Beck Schimmer: Because we want to optimally deploy our resources, it’s important that as many research groups as possible can benefit from the expertise, know-how and technical facilities that are developed using the funding.

As a comprehensive university with the greatest disciplinary breadth in Switzerland, UZH offers researchers good conditions for interdisciplinary networking...

Elisabeth Stark: ...and with our research priorities, we ensure that this potential is actually utilized.

“The university research funding is not prescriptive in terms of content, but it is in terms of structure.”

Elisabeth Stark

Vice President Research

(Kopie 6)

To what extent does university research funding interfere with the development of departments and faculties?

Elisabeth Stark: It is not prescriptive in terms of content, but it is in terms of structure. If faculties receive funding for specific priority projects, they have to ensure that structural innovations that prove effective are permanently enshrined in the organization. These innovations must also be financed – whether with third-party funds, funds from the faculty budget or simply from professorship planning – so that when vacant positions are filled, innovative denominations are used so that they are virtually budget neutral. Priority planning therefore relies on the coordination of centralized and decentralized research funding. UZH has an appropriate framework for this model in Governance 2020+, under which the faculties are accorded a great deal of strategic autonomy.

Have you got examples of permanent profile-enhancing structures at UZH that stem from University Research Priority Programs?

Elisabeth Stark: An early example is the Institute of Asian and Oriental Studies, which was formed in 2013 when several other departments merged, and which combines the subjects South Asian studies, Islamic studies, Japanese studies, Chinese studies and gender studies. The impetus came from the previous URPP “Asia and Europe”. Another example is the Functional Genomics Center, which came out of the URPP “Systems Biology”.  A current example is the Healthy Longevity Center, which was set up in 2022 and built on the foundation laid by the former URPP “Dynamics of Healthy Aging”.

UZH is currently funding 13 University Research Priority Programs. In addition, a new funding line has been created with TRANSFORM. What for?

Elisabeth Stark: In recent years, with the help of research initiatives, UZH has succeeded several times in setting a clear course and initiating developments that have benefited the university as a whole, such as the Digital Society Initiative  (DSI). Under the new name TRANSFORM, we have now reinforced this funding line and given it a clearer strategic focus. The name says it all: TRANSFORM – To Reach A New Structure For Optimal Research and Methods. The first two TRANSFORM projects were launched in 2022.

What topics do they deal with?

Elisabeth Stark: Both TRANSFORM projects are looking at very topical subjects. The One Health project is looking among other things at infectious diseases that can be transmitted between animals and humans. The question of how the health of humans, animals and the environment fits together is being studied by many researchers at UZH, but previously there was nowhere to explore this question in a joined-up way with a holistic approach. The Vetsuisse Faculty has now taken the initiative to set up such a location together with the Faculty of Medicine and the Faculty of Science – the Institute of One Health Research. This is the first of its kind in Switzerland. And this is precisely the point of the TRANSFORM funding line: to respond swiftly to the latest developments in the research landscape and to sustainably promote collaboration in pioneering fields. As we are also doing in the second TRANSFORM project, which is exploring the use of quantitative methods in law, in other words computer-aided, systematic compilation, preparation and analysis of legal data. A Center for Legal Data Science has been set up for this purpose. The two TRANSFORM projects will receive total seed funding of CHF 2.7 million over four years.

“We are well placed to succeed in the long term in one of the most promising fields of development in medicine, both in Switzerland and internationally.”

Beatrice Beck Schimmer

Vice President Medicine

The area of precision medicine has emerged as a strong focus in recent years. Researchers from UZH, ETH Zurich and the four university hospitals are working closely in this area. How did this collaboration come about?

Beatrice Beck Schimmer: As I mentioned, researchers from the six institutions were interested in precision medicine early on and were conducting research in this field. The establishment of University Medicine Zurich (UMZH) in 2018 then paved the way for closer collaboration in this area. Three centers were set up in which all six institutions are involved: the Comprehensive Cancer Center Zurich, the Tumor Profiler Center and The LOOP Zurich. This means we are well placed to succeed in the long term in one of the most promising fields of development in medicine, both in Switzerland and internationally. This is also thanks to the additional funding we secured from the Canton of Zurich.

Does precision medicine particularly lend itself to being a priority area?

Beatrice Beck Schimmer: A large part of precision medicine works on the basis of data, which is why the synergy effects of collaboration between various medical fields are particularly great – both at the clinical and pre-clinical level. In precision medicine, biological data, such as genetic information or imaging data is incorporated in order to make decisions to personalize medical treatment, for example for cancer. The analysis of large volumes of data allows us to identify patterns regarding how diseases evolve and which therapies are effective. In an intensive care ward, around 20 MB of data is accumulated per patient every day, for example results of blood tests, biopsies or MRI scans. But at the moment we don’t fully utilize the potential of that data.

What is lacking?

Beatrice Beck Schimmer: An efficient digital infrastructure. Up to now, every hospital has had its own IT system. Patient data is not compatible with other systems and can’t be exchanged between hospitals or research facilities. But we’re changing that: between now and 2025, The LOOP Zurich research center is setting up a biomedical IT platform that centralizes huge volumes of research data and patient data. Provided individual patients give their consent, data will be homogenized at four university hospitals in Zurich and stored on the IT platform so that all the participating institutions can access it using a search system and can use it for research. Through this platform, Zurich could become a national model for data-driven medicine.

So far, we’ve only talked about funding of research priorities and networks. But the University’s research funding also includes career and personal development. What is UZH doing in this area to deploy the funds as sustainably as possible?

Elisabeth Stark: At UZH, we want to attract and retain the brightest minds. This is why we generally award assistant professorships with a tenure track – that is, with the prospect of long-term employment. Many assistant professorships are created in conjunction with interdisciplinary research priorities.

We also want to offer junior researchers more diverse career paths than before and give them enough time to gain scientific qualifications. As part of the NextGeneration@UZH program, in 2022 we therefore made the employment conditions for teaching and research assistants and PhD candidates more transparent and standardized them across the university. A key part of this concerns protected time, in which junior researchers can focus on their own research projects. We have also created a new type of role – the lecturer – for postdoctoral researchers who are keen to stay in academia but aren’t necessarily aiming for a professorship. Lecturer positions are well resourced, permanent and independent and allow young researchers to carry out academic activity – with a focus on teaching or research – long term. This new type of role is an attractive alternative career option for young researchers, and for the departments and institutes it’s an opportunity to build up valuable knowledge and expertise in the long term and to retain highly-qualified people at UZH.