The NOMIS Foundation is currently funding several projects at the University of Zurich, including one involving cancer research, one on environmental ethics, and one around biodiversity and remote sensing. How did collaboration between the researchers and the foundation come about?
Markus Reinhard: The NOMIS Foundation focuses on the people doing research. We get to know them proactively via our growing network. After an initial contact, we remain in close conversation with these people about their research ideas and approaches. In thematic terms our foundation has very broad interests.
What criteria do you apply in selecting projects to support?
Reinhard: We only promote basic research. We’re less interested in individual projects that in the personalities doing the research. Our philosophy is to support outstanding researchers with true pioneering spirit who apply new methods and interdisciplinary perspectives to their work. It’s important to us to have a personal relationship with the researchers we support. In additional to financial support, we offer the opportunity for dialogue and mutual inspiration within a network of researchers we’re constantly in the process of expanding.
Let’s look at the project run by Michael Schaepman, who’s also with us today. What it’s about?
Michael Schaepman: Our Remotely Sensing Ecological Genomics project is looking into the question of whether remote sensing can be used to measure the genetic diversity of plants. We’re recording on a broad scale what plants grow in a specific area and how the composition of the vegetation changes over time, among other things under the influence of humans. We gather our data on the ground and from above with the help of aircraft and satellites. To find out the composition and structure of the vegetation cover we use spectrometers that measure the light reflected by plants. From these measurement data we can then map the spatial distribution of biodiversity, and the genetic diversity, of plants. This method is new. At the moment we’re testing it on the Lägern, a hill chain along the border between the Swiss cantons of Aargau and Zurich.
Markus Reinhard, how did the NOMIS Foundation come across this project?
Reinhard: Recently we’ve been increasingly turning our sights to the issue of biodiversity, and we intend to step up our activity in this area of research. In 2017 we became aware of Michael Schaepman’s research on remote sensing via our network. First we got to know each other, and then had a number of longer discussions that ultimately led to a firm project proposal.
Michael Schaepman, how did you react when the NOMIS Foundation approached you?
Schaepman: I was surprised and naturally delighted. At that point I’d already applied to various institutions for third-party funding, so far without success, because they believed the project was too risky.
Would you have been able to run the project without the support of the NOMIS Foundation?
Schaepman: Yes, but not at the same rate or on the same scale, and without the deliberate interdisciplinary approach we’ve chosen. At UZH we’re free to do the research we believe to be right and important.
What’s your experience of working with the NOMIS Foundation?
Schaepman: The partnership has created completely new possibilities for me as a researcher – surprisingly enough, not just in financial terms. Thanks to the foundation I’ve become part of a scientific network I would previously have had no access to.
Martin Gubser, for the last two years you’ve been managing director of the UZH Foundation, which was established back in 2012. You and a team of ten manage fundraising for UZH. What does your job involve exactly?
Martin Gubser: UZH Foundation’s core business is building good relationships between individual researchers, UZH, and donors, and maintaining and fostering these relationships with a view to further productive collaboration.
What else does your job involve?
Gubser: One component of our work is making sure that funding processes are executed properly in accordance with the contract. A lot of work also goes into our communications, for example our efforts to explain complex research projects to the appropriate audience.
Who comes into consideration as UZH donors?
Gubser: Primarily private individuals, alumni associations or private foundations such as NOMIS.
As we’ve seen from the example of Michael Schaepman, the NOMIS Foundation actively approaches researchers itself. Is that the case for all private foundations that fund scientific projects?
Gubser: No. The approach varies a lot from foundation to foundation. Some wait for researchers to come to them and then choose the applications that are appropriate.
What’s the difference between donations or endowments and sponsorship?
Gubser: You have to make a clear distinction between these two forms of funding. People make donations with no hope of getting anything back. So donating something means giving, without taking anything in return, to make things happen that you’re convinced of and are important to you. Sponsorship, on the other hand, is based on an agreement between two independent institutions whereby one buys communications services from the other; in other words paying in return for attention.
What’s UZH’s approach to sponsorship, Michael Schaepman?
Schaepman: Sponsorship means contributions to fund the university’s duties, in return for which the university provides a service that is subject to value-added tax. The University of Zurich has drawn up a fact sheet on sponsorship which is clearly formulated and very restrictive. In particular, when it comes to sponsorship we weigh up the economic benefits and any potential reputational risks very carefully.
Does UZH also attach conditions when it accepts donations?
Schaepman: Yes. The conditions are set down in a fundraising policy. In particular, the origin of the donation and the purpose for which it is earmarked must be transparent, freedom of research and teaching must be contractually assured, and the donation must match UZH’s strategic objectives. For example, the university won’t accept funds if we don’t know the donor or the bank transferring the money.
Does UZH ever reject projects on strategic grounds?
Schaepman: Yes, this has happened. Basically UZH can refuse donations without giving its reasons. Recently, for example, someone wanted to fund a project relating to a topic that’s very popular at the moment but where we at UZH don’t currently have sufficient expertise. We were faced with the choice of either using the money to build the necessary expertise – which wasn’t what the donor wanted – or refusing the donation. After due deliberation we decided for the latter.
Isn’t that a painful decision to have to make?
Schaepman: No. We don’t have any specified targets at UZH for how many donations we raise each year. As a university that’s largely publicly funded, we’re not dependent on donations, and don’t wish to be. At the moment private donors account for around two to three percent of UZH’s total budget, and the figure is rising.
Given that they account for such a small share is it even worth trying to raise private donations?
Schaepman: Private donations give the university greater flexibility in its research. They have the advantage of in most cases being available more quickly than public funds, which makes them ideal when it comes to using the momentum to make special, promising research projects happen.
How do you make sure that accepting donations doesn’t violate freedom of research at UZH?
Schaepman: Freedom of research and teaching are two of the principles on which our university is built. The credibility of our scholarly and scientific work depends on them. For this reason we safeguard the freedom of research and teaching in an agreement with our donors. But given that there’s no such thing as absolute independence, transparency is important. We disclose where the funds come from and what purpose they’re used for. We publish all third-party funding totaling more than CHF 100,000 on the UZH website. We also maintain a list of endowed professorships and a register disclosing all the outside professional activities and interests of UZH professors.
Markus Reinhard, are clear rules protecting freedom of research more of an incentive or an obstacle when it comes to donating money to a university?
Reinhard: Clear rules are preferable in every respect. The more precisely and openly a university deals with donations, the better it is for the researchers involved, the university, for science, and also for the foundation giving the money.
Is it a matter of safeguarding the foundation’s reputation?
Reinhard: Naturally our foundation’s reputation and the reputation of the researchers we support are closely bound up. The NOMIS Foundation is committed to funding independent basic research. This is why we only work with universities that have a clear legal framework to protect freedom of research and can guarantee compliance with these rules. I don’t mean that as a slur on commissioned or contract research. I myself spent a long time working in pharmaceuticals, an industry where it’s vital to collaborate with universities on the development of new active agents. Commissioned research is important and legitimate. But it must be clearly declared as such and comply with clear rules.
Markus Reinhard, the NOMIS Foundation is also involved in the US. What differences do you see compared with the way things are done in this part of the world?
Reinhard: Elite universities in the US, which are of course privately funded in the majority of cases, work intensively to attract donors with the help of impressively structured communications and fundraising departments. Fundraising has a long tradition at American universities, which wouldn’t be able to do research without donations. That’s why donors are also involved in the form of long-term partnerships and given special acknowledgement. Every library, path and bench on a university campus bears the name of an endowment or donor.
What’s the situation in Europe?
Reinhard: The circumstances vary widely from one European country to another. UZH is certainly doing well by European standards. That’s thanks not least to the UZH Foundation, which provides professional support and advice to both donors and researchers.
Michael Schaepman, should UZH be following the example of US universities as it continues to develop its fundraising?
Schaepman: In certain areas we definitely have plenty to learn from elite American universities. Overall, however, we shouldn’t be copying our counterparts in the US. The circumstances are so different. We’d do better to build on our own strengths. Basic state funding gives us many strategic advantages internationally which in the future we should maybe be harnessing even better than we have so far.
What advantages do you mean?
Schaepman: For example the close connection between teaching and research. This does a lot to ensure that science and scholarship will flourish in the long term. In some cases, very successful researchers at American universities have virtually stopped paying any attention to teaching, which means they’re not paying attention to the talent of the future either.
How in your opinion should fundraising at UZH be developing in the years to come?
Schaepman: So far UZH has had very positive experience with private donations. They’re an effective means of further expanding UZH’s strengths by providing rapid, targeted funding for outstanding research. Not all strategically interesting research projects can be financed with public funds. It would be preferable if as many of these projects as possible could nevertheless take place with the help of donations.
Michael Schaepman, you work successfully with a private foundation. What would you advise researchers who plan to do the same thing?
Schaepman: My first piece of advice would be not to see foundations merely as some kind of horn of plenty bestowing its gifts on the recipient. That’s the wrong idea. Researchers and donors should see themselves as partners who work together to uncover new scientific knowledge for the benefit of society.
And your second piece of advice?
Schaepman: Every foundation is bound to its purpose and must comply with certain criteria governing how it uses its money. They’ll carefully assess whether a project is eligible for funding. Researchers who want to fund their project by way of donations must be prepared to invest time and energy in the partnership. Explaining your research project to a foundation and nurturing the partnership require just as much effort and diligence as submitting an application for third-party funding to the Swiss National Science Foundation.
Do you have a third piece of advice?
Schaepman: Yes, I would advise any researcher at UZH to make use of the UZH Foundation’s professional know-how when trying to raise donations.
Martin Gubser, what goals do you and the UZH Foundation plan to achieve in the foreseeable future?
Gubser: The alumni associations at UZH have been doing good work for years or even decades to keep graduates’ ties with their alma mater intact. From our point of view it would be really important to add the fundraising component to this established relationship. We’re convinced that many alumni, especially those at an advanced age, would be happy to give something back to their university and would be ready to make a donation or leave a legacy. Bequests are another key area of development. Here we still have plenty of homework to do, especially in terms of communication.
So that it occurs to donors in the first place that they could be leaving something to the university in their will?
Gubser: Exactly. Recently we had a visit from an elderly couple who had found out about the UZH Foundation in an article and had decided to make the university their sole heir. That’s something that should be happening more often!