«Investing in Swiss Leadership! Why Foundations in Switzerland Should Get Involved in Science and Research.»

Interview with Simon Sommer

Switzerland occupies a leading position in science and research worldwide. Its universities are considered very innovative and it maintains an extremely dynamic research activity. Dies eröffnet grosse Chancen für Stiftungen, sich wirksam und sichtbar zu engagieren. With a commitment, they can actively shape the future.

Simon Sommer, how important is philanthropy for science and research in Switzerland?

Important. The Swiss science system is very well endowed with public funding compared to the rest of the world. Nevertheless, it makes sense and is possible to engage in certain topics in greater depth. Great working and research conditions prevail at twelve Swiss universities, eight universities of applied sciences and twenty universities of teacher education. In 2018, the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) reported a high success rate of nearly 50 percent in project funding, with approximately CHF 1,14 billion in approved funds. No other public research funding agency in the world matches this ratio.

Who are the key players in science and research?

First and foremost, it is the researchers, the universities, the universities of applied sciences, the science media and, of course, the business community with its many stakeholders. The diversity is complemented with dedicated foundations and university endowments. (ETH Zurich Foundation, Philanthropy @ EPFL, UZH Foundation)

Is funding science and research worthwhile for small foundations?

Despite the complexity of the matter, it is worthwhile for small foundations to get involved. You can be represented by one of the professionally managed university foundations. The purpose of these is to promote research and teaching at the respective university. Their services range from setting up a subfoundation to managing joint selection processes.

How well does philanthropy work for science and research?

We have active science funding here in Switzerland, especially because there are well-known foundations that have decided to boldly pursue independent and impact-oriented science funding. One of these is the Forlen Stiftung in Basel, which has set its focus at the medical faculty and the Swiss TPH, at the Swiss Tropical Institute. With such commitments, foundations contribute to the top position of the Swiss economy. The constant exchange with their scientific partners keeps the foundations themselves «on the pulse of time». Active science promotion prevents stagnation – also at the promoter itself!

And what are the biggest challenges in promoting science and research?

Foundations should further professionalize themselves and bring experts from the respective fields on board. Unfortunately, I often hear that science and research funding cannot have an impact in this country because research is very expensive. On average, one assumes about 400’000 Swiss francs, with two doctoral students, during three years. In my opinion, this assumption could not be more wrong. This is because the excellent positioning of Swiss science opens up great opportunities for foundations to become effectively and visibly involved. For the promotion of young scientists: Graduate Campus. The setting of thematic priorities: Swiss EdTech Collider. For funding original and risky projects: Microbials. Practical innovation research at universities of applied sciences in collaboration with SMEs and other practical partners: Innosuisse.

How can these challenges be met?

Of central importance in the promotion of science and research is the definition of clear and sufficiently narrow guidelines. Because there is no topic on which research is not being done somewhere. Whether setting up as a foundation its own funding program or collaborating with a university foundation, if you want to make an impact in research funding, clear focus is essential. This decision should be made by each foundation itself! Once funding or collaboration has begun, freedom and independence of science are the highest good. «Retaxing» is usually not an option, and that’s a good thing.

What do you personally donate to and what is your motivation?

Development aid is a matter of concern to me, which is why I donate to Helvetas consistently.

Where are you involved in volunteering?

For years I have been involved with the Swiss Study Foundation as an assessor. This has set itself the goal of promoting young people. Talents who excel through special achievements are to advance science, business and politics with new creative approaches.


Simon Sommer

In his previous role as Head of Research and Member of the Executive Board, Simon Sommer was responsible for funding research projects, the Jacobs Foundation Research Fellowship Program, intervention research, the annual Jacobs Foundation conferences, and workshops and symposia at Marbach Castle. He developed and initiated the Klaus Jacobs Research Award as the largest and most prestigious award for research on child and adolescent development. Before joining the Jacobs Foundation in 2006, Simon Sommer worked at the Volkswagen Foundation in Hanover, Germany’s largest private research funder, and as a management consultant at McKinsey & Company in Berlin. Simon Sommer holds a degree in Cultural Studies and Musicology from Leuphana University Lüneburg, Germany, and the University of Maryland, College Park, USA.