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Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) Scholars at Risk Funding Scheme: Perspective from a funder, Matt Kimmich, Scientific Officer

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Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) Scholars at Risk Funding Scheme Perspective from a funder interview with Matt Kimmich, Scientific Officer SNSF logo image of Bern, Switzerland at right

Preface: In this interview, we delve into the details of the Scholars at Risk funding scheme with Matt Kimmich, Scientific Officer at SNSF. Matt provides insights into the funding scheme’s evolution, its operational aspects, as well as its impact on the lives of scientists facing ‘grave threats to their lives, liberty, and well-being.’ Given the current common threats throughout the globe in the sphere of academic freedom, the SNSF Scholars at Risk funding scheme is bringing hope, support, and solidarity.

Tell us, how long has the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) Scholars at Risk (SAR) funding scheme existed?

The SNSF began its collaboration with Scholars at Risk Switzerland in 2020, starting with a three-year pilot funding scheme to offer funding for placements of scholars under threat at Swiss universities. In 2023, we ended the pilot and rolled out SAR support as a regular funding scheme.

What is your role with the SAR grant funding scheme, Matt?

I am responsible for handling and processing applications for Scholars at Risk grants, and I’m the contact person for the SAR coordinators at Swiss universities and for anyone who wants to know more about the SNSF’s support of Scholars at Risk Switzerland.

Can you specify the types of risk that entitle potential applicants to pursue the Scholars at Risk grant?

Scholars at Risk speaks of “scholars suffering grave threats to their lives, liberty and well-being”. This can range from researchers at risk of being jailed because of their research to researchers escaping war, such as those from Ukraine who came to Switzerland after the Russian invasion in 2022.

How many people are funded each year through the SAR funding scheme and what amount is received annually?

The original budget for the pilot project, which was based on the numbers of preceding years, would have supported up to five scholars over a three-year period. The situation changed, first in 2021 with the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan and then in 2022 with the war in Ukraine. We were lucky enough to be able to access funds and reserves to support larger numbers than originally foreseen. In 2022/23 such reserves made it possible for us to support around 100 researchers. At this time, we have an annual budget that will fund on average ten placements per year.

The SNSF grants are used to finance, at least in part, a salary for the scholars placed at Swiss universities. The grants are set at a sum that can finance a part-time position for one year; sometimes universities add funds of their own to make a full-time position possible. However, the grants cannot be used to cover research costs; the host universities are responsible for these.

Does the financing allow for the researcher’s family members to be relocated? If not, does participating in the SAR funding scheme make it easier for family members to move to Switzerland?

As the grants are used to fund salaries, it is possible that they help cover relocation costs for the researchers’ families. This was definitely the case with many of the grants going to researchers from Ukraine in 2022/23. However, there are many things factoring into whether scholars can bring family members to Switzerland, and these are out of our hands. The SNSF, being a research funder, is responsible for the financial side of these placements only.

In what manner will the recipient and the Swiss research organization be matched? Does the recipient need an invitation from a Swiss scientific group?

The SNSF itself isn’t involved in matching scholars and universities. If a scholar under threat already has contacts in Switzerland, they generally get in touch with those and the SAR coordinators at those universities then assist them in trying to get the official status as “scholar under threat”. Without such a preexisting contact, scholars usually contact SAR directly, and SAR then looks for possible sites for a placement among the members of its global network.

What is required in order for the grant to be extended for another year?

Our current regulations stipulate that an extension for a second year is always possible, though with a smaller budget: a first-year grant amounts to CHF75’000, a second-year grant to CHF25’000. This either covers only part of a second year, which allows hosts and scholars to look into alternative arrangements, or the hosts find funds of their own to supplement the second-year extension.

Scientists leading research in all disciplines are eligible for this grant? Is there any particular type of research that is most interesting for the SAR funding scheme?

The focus is on the scholars and the risk they face in their countries. The disciplines they work in are secondary. It is possible that researchers working in SSH fields are more likely to face persecution due to their research, which may be critical of governments and regimes, but SAR does not restrict itself to researchers who are at risk specifically because of their research.

Acknowledgements

We extend our gratitude to Matt Kimmich for providing profound insights into the SNSF Scholars at Risk funding scheme. His expertise and dedication have enriched our understanding of the importance of such initiatives. We also acknowledge the efforts of Scholars at Risk Switzerland and the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) in pioneering initiatives to support scientists facing threats to their academic freedom and well-being.

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