The COVID-19 crisis has also been extremely challenging for the University of Bern. Nevertheless, the University is leveraging its expertise to make a vital contribution toward efforts to overcome this crisis and serve as a catalyst for the future. The University of Bern’s future success is being threatened by the sluggish pace of infrastructure renewal as well as collaborative research projects with Europe that are in jeopardy.
By Prof. Dr. Christian Leumann, Rector
An eventful year has now come to a close, one that surprised us in many respects and took us to our limits. The COVID-19 pandemic has had a chokehold on us since mid-March 2020 and the all-clear signal still hasn’t been sounded. During the first lockdown, in the space of just three days we had to shift courses to digital channels and temporarily close our buildings and labs, which severely impaired our research activities, in particular. Students, researchers and staff were required to work from home wherever possible.
But every crisis also opens up opportunities. Seen from that point of view, the past year has been an enormous experiment in establishing and implementing new types of teaching. Thankfully, the University of Bern’s digitalization strategy meant that it was well prepared to embark on that experiment and we’ll now be taking a closer look at those experiences. Going forward, I expect this to have a lasting impact on teaching at university level and, while the COVID-19 crisis might not have triggered the process, it is certainly serving as a major catalyst.
When it comes to the crisis, however, the University of Bern isn’t just a victim, rather it’s making a concerted effort to also be a part of the solution. Researchers from the Institute of Virology and Immunology of the Vetsuisse Faculty in Bern, for example, were the first in the world to reconstruct the SARS-CoV-2 virus and develop a rapid test to detect SARS-CoV-2 antibodies. Plus, no fewer than six University of Bern professors were called to join the COVID-19 Task Force last year.
Fortunately, COVID-19 wasn't the only big news of the year – quite a few positive things happened as well. With a student body of more than 19,200 in the most recent fall semester, the University set a new enrollment record. That's both an acknowledgment of our attractiveness and simultaneously an incentive to set the bar ever higher and strive for greater excellence in our educational offerings. The Wyss Academy for Nature was officially founded in early May and is under the leadership of Prof. Peter Messerli, who is overseeing its swift setup. Climate, biodiversity and land use research are brought together under the umbrella of the Wyss Academy, with involvement by the foundation of Bernese patron Hansjörg Wyss as well as the University and the Canton of Bern, with the goal of developing and testing realistic projects to promote the sustainable development of humans and nature. Thanks to our scientific contributions to the COVID-19 pandemic and generous financial support from the Vinetum Foundation, we were able to establish a new strategic research center, the Multidisciplinary Center for Infectious Diseases and Immunity (MCIDI), in December 2020. This center will use an interdisciplinary approach to examine the emergence of infectious diseases and their impact on health, society, and the economy, and identify feasible strategies for managing future pandemics.
Unitectra, the technology transfer organization, will promote the transfer of knowledge to society and the economy. In fact, this organization celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2020. Over the course of those 20 years, the organization has been able to boast the negotiation of 18,000 research agreements, the registration of 1,200 patents and support for 200 spin-offs.
"Research in Bern benefits from close collaboration with Europe."
Prof. Dr. Christian Leumann, Rektor
Research in Bern benefits from close collaboration with Europe. The University of Bern is heading up the new European research project entitled “G-VERSITY”, for example, which aims to promote gender diversity in the workplace and is the recipient of EUR 4.1 million in funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 program. Another example is offered by four researchers from Bern who each managed to secure an ERC Starting Grant in 2020. They teach and conduct research in the areas of plant biology, economic sciences, physiology and chemistry.
Unfortunately, however, and despite the fact that time is running out, Swiss universities’ association with the upcoming European research and education network Horizon Europe is up in the air. A framework agreement between Switzerland and the EU first needs to be in place in order for accession negotiations regarding any association with this network to begin. In the current situation, however, it’s impossible to foresee whether this kind of agreement will exist before Horizon Europe is launched. In that case, Switzerland’s higher education landscape will not be able to make a seamless transition from Horizon 2020 to Horizon Europe. Experience from 2014 clearly shows that this will represent a setback: We would be considered an unreliable cooperation partner for the second time and could be excluded from European research alliances yet again. Not only would this have financial repercussions but it also prevents our Swiss universities from helping to shape Europe’s future research agenda. Cuttingedge research is comparable to elite sports. If you’re only allowed to participate in the Swiss championships, you won’t be able to get in good enough shape to successfully compete in the Champions League.
In closing, I’d like to take this opportunity to express my most sincere gratitude for everything our students, researchers and staff have done over the past year. It’s been a difficult one, but together we achieved great things and it’s with that knowledge that I look to the future with a sense of confidence and optimism.