Project U Change: Perspective from a Funder, Yves Gärtner, Head of U Change

Written by: Judy Mielke

Preface: Sustainability is hot on everyone’s lips these days, but what are we actually doing about it? At this year’s EuroScience Open Forum, we met with Yves Gärtner, Head of U Change at the Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences, to talk about Project U Change, a funding initiative from the Swiss government that fosters sustainable development initiatives from university students. 

Please tell us more about Project U Change. When did it start and why?

In Switzerland, government funding for research, science and innovation has a four-year cycle. A part of this funding is dedicated to research that is considered relevant on a national level or greater, what we call the Projektgebundene Beiträge in German. Just over 10 years ago, we in Switzerland started to recognize more and more the importance of sustainable development and also that the Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences is the best driver of sustainability initiatives. This led to the project “Sustainable Development at Universities” in 2013. It addressed only universities and included research, teaching and student initiatives on sustainability. When the project was renewed after four years, it was decided to focus only on student initiatives because it is a great way to empower students with innovative ideas. This is when the project was renamed to U Change, for University Change. Most importantly, in my opinion, was the decision to open the project to not only universities but to all higher education institutions in Switzerland. The project welcomes any and all ideas from students, as long as they can explain why it is good for sustainable development. The total budget for the program is 2.5 million CHF over 4 years and each project may apply for up to 10,000 CHF in funding.  

Of all the projects that have been funded through U Change to date, are there some that you are particularly fond of?

There are so many projects, so it is hard to say but there are certainly some highlights. One particular project that comes to mind is the “Buy-Aware” project, whereby a team of students checked the sustainability reports of smartphone producers and based on these reports had a score list of the most sustainable smartphones. This project team built up a great network with smartphone producers, including Apple and Samsung. Unfortunately, due to personal circumstances, the team was not able to continue with this work, which would have been really exciting to enable consumers to drive sustainable consumption.  

Another interesting project is “Pluralistic Economics”, a series of lectures whereby economic experts are invited to explain different economic theories. It was so popular and successful that the University of Zurich has taken over the running of the project in the longer term. An interesting anecdote from this project was the attempt at hijacking the message by a local right-wing politician who tried to denounce the project for “teaching Marxism”. Indeed, the project included Marxism, which is definitely one economic theory. The politician did not achieve the intended outcome, but it certainly helped promote the lecture series!  

An important project that addresses food waste and poverty is a program whereby unsold food from big supermarket chains is sold to students. One project in Geneva decided not to sell the food but to give the food away, without asking any questions. While Switzerland is not usually associated with poverty, the high cost of living can make it quite challenging for some students. By not asking any questions or requiring any form of identification, students that are in most need can receive aid without any perceived shame for receiving food aid.  

For other countries and funders that are considering adopting a similar program, what would your advice be? 

First, give the students a chance to do something. Students are very innovative, have a lot of energy, and it’s a program that has a low cost-to-benefit ratio. With 10,000 Swiss Francs per project, it’s amazing the solutions that the students have come up with. It’s an easy way to get great innovation and all stakeholders are excited about it. So, go for it, empower students to take part and make a change.  

And what’s your advice for potential applicants for U Change funding?  

U Change is a particular funding program in one aspect: I am allowed to give feedback on project proposals before they are submitted. So, the advice is to start early to be able to send a draft to me for feedback. Of course, this is not a guarantee of getting the project funded, as I am not the one who makes the decisions. And, maybe even more important, tell the experts at your own higher education institution about your project and ask for advice. And, the third piece of advice, don’t try to solve all problems. Focus on one topic, and don’t forget that the main job is to finish your studies. 

Acknowledgment

Thank you, Yves, for sharing your funder’s perspective with us!


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