NRPs are addressing the most pressing problems of our time

The SNSF is launching four new National Research Programmes. Nicole Schaad, head of the National Research unit at the State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation, explains how NRPs work.

Ms Schaad, why are the National Research Programmes important to the federal government?

NRPs are an important instrument alongside bottom-up funding, which allows researchers to freely select their topics in basic research according to their interests. The NRP instrument supports thematically coordinated research that addresses societal challenges specifically. In the ideal scenario, the knowledge generated by NRPs will serve as a basis for tackling current problems. Be it the Covid pandemic, biodiversity, coercive welfare measures or gender medicine, NRPs are closely aligned with pressing issues of our time.

The NRP instrument has been around since 1975 already. How has it evolved since then?

The fact that NRPs have been in existence for nearly 50 years is a testament to the effectiveness of this instrument. Over time, there have been several shifts in their focus and approach. At the beginning, the instrument was heavily influenced by politics. Politics and administration hoped that science would provide answers on how societal issues could be addressed with new findings and recommendations. From the 1990s, NRPs increasingly became an instrument used by the scientific community to explore interesting research questions. Practical solutions took a back seat. In recent years, we have seen the Federal Council choosing NRP topics itself. This was the case during the pandemic, for example. However, the strength of NRPs lies precisely in their ability to balance scientific and political interests. It is therefore important to regularly conduct open review rounds. We identify issues from science, society and administration and then prioritise the ones that are relevant to fulfilling federal tasks.

NRPs often formulate recommendations for politics. How willing are policymakers to take these suggestions on board? Or in general: What do they expect from NRPs?

NRPs are expected to proactively address pressing challenges and generate actionable knowledge. If they are overly scientific, so to speak, their value for politics and administration is limited. This means researchers must step out of their traditional domains and align their knowledge with the realities and practicalities of societal developments. This is demanding. If they familiarise with political debates, they can better incorporate their findings and involve politics, administration and societal stakeholders more effectively. Though this occasionally works, there is certainly still room for improvement.

When researchers venture into the realm of politics, isn’t there a risk of science being instrumentalised?

Scientists must be aware of this challenge. They can achieve this through dialogue with policymakers. Their research agenda must be conceived independently of political interests.

Have the expectations of politics changed in recent decades?

Politics, meaning the Parliament, is increasingly keen to launch NRPs through political channels, such as procedural requests. Politicians tend to concentrate on their own specific issues and are less aware of the debates going on at international level. This hampers their ability to recognise important developments early on. If decision-making in politics or administration were solely based on their own interests, we might never have launched important NRPs like “Opportunities and Risks of Nanomaterials” or “Artificial Intelligence and Robotics” back in 1998. It is therefore essential that we find a way to identify the right topics – not the ones that are already being widely addressed but, rather, the new ones that are or will be relevant to Switzerland.

What is the government doing with the research findings?

For each NRP, the federal government identifies key departments that deal with the respective subjects and are interested in the research findings. For the NRP on “Welfare and Coercion”, this was the Federal Office of Justice, and for the NRP on “Covid-19”, it was the Federal Office of Public Health. Sometimes, multiple offices are involved. They delegate representatives for the NRP. These are responsible for managing the flow of information into the Federal Administration and for the practical implementation of findings in the relevant areas.

What would you say makes NRP research different?

The application of knowledge plays a key role, which is why Innosuisse, the Swiss Innovation Agency, is increasingly involved. Each NRP is tasked with systematically implementing knowledge and technology transfer. This means preparing knowledge in a way that makes it accessible to interested parties. It also means working with stakeholders – groups interested in and affected by the topic of an NRP – to develop specific solutions. Finally, interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity play an important role, both in terms of cooperation between different scientific disciplines and the involvement of practitioners. Inter- and transdisciplinarity make it easier to tackle the major challenges that NRPs face, given that the real-world challenges are inherently complex.

NRP 84 is operating in a controversial area. It aims to link innovations in new plant breeding techniques with socio-economic and political changes. What do you hope to gain from this?

The political debate surrounding genetic engineering has been ongoing for decades but is still far from settled. We urgently need a new scientific basis for this debate. I hope NRP 84 will provide this. It is intended to explore pathways to seize the opportunities and thereby considering the risks associated.