Rector’s message

Executive Board

Science under constant pressure

As a center for academia, Switzerland is currently facing a number of tough challenges, not only in connection with the pandemic but especially due to the consequences of the failed framework agreement between Switzerland and the EU. The on-site presence of students, teachers and researchers is also an essential factor for the University’s success, as shown by the positive experiences of fall 2021.


By Prof. Dr. Christian Leumann, Rector

The biggest highlight of 2021 was probably the return to in-person teaching at the start of the fall semester, which was made possible by COVID certificates. Even though the pandemic isn’t over yet, university operations normalized somewhat thanks to COVID-19 measures that have since become ingrained in our everyday routines. It was delightful to see the buildings come back to life and students engaged in lively discussions with one another – some of whom had actually been studying at the University for three semesters but had previously only met their fellow students on a monitor. After all, efficient, effective education isn’t merely the product of a direct transfer of knowledge between lecturers and students. Interpersonal contact between students, incidental communication and a critical examination of teaching content as well as the creation of personal networks that last a lifetime are aspects that are impossible to digitalize.

The research highlights of 2021 undoubtedly included the March opening of the Center for Artificial Intelligence in Medicine (CAIM), a research and teaching center operated by the Faculty of Medicine, Bern University Hospital, the University Psychiatry Services and sitem-insel. There, computer technicians and physicians use artificial intelligence to develop improved diagnostic and therapeutic processes. One astounding example of this is BrainPol, an interdisciplinary project in which a space scientist and a specialist on AI in medicine take methods used in space research and transfer them to the operating room in order to distinguish healthy nerve cells from brain tumor cells. This project is a prime example of the potential offered by a comprehensive university: to create innovation by tapping strengths in every discipline and embracing an open mindset toward interdisciplinary research.

Another major achievement for the University of Bern was its successful accreditation by the Swiss Accreditation Council, which was granted without any conditions. This bears testimony to the fact that the University has undergone a cultural change that has shifted its focus toward quality management. One special achievement was the presentation of the Marcel Benoist Science Prize, referred to as the “Swiss Nobel Prize”, to Thomas Berger, a psychology professor and pioneer in online psychotherapy. Particularly in the current pandemic, there is an enormous amount of demand for his digital tools, which are capable of detecting depression at an early stage and offering corresponding therapeutic treatments. We were also able to inaugurate the new research and laboratory facilities at Murtenstrasse 24 - 28 for the Department of Biomedicine and the Institute of Forensic Medicine, and to celebrate “50 Years of Women’s Suffrage” with an exhibition at the Bernisches Historisches Museum, which was curated by the Interdisciplinary Center for Gender Studies of the University of Bern.

Climate change remains an urgent issue. The UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow ended without yielding any convincing results. The more time passes, the more apparent it becomes that human behavior is the problem, not any dearth of technological tools. Researchers at the Oeschger Centre for Climate Change Research, the World Trade Institute, the Center for Development and Environment and the Wyss Academy for Nature – all research centers of the University of Bern – are therefore stepping up their investigations into new political-economic approaches to managing the socio-technological transformation.

The Federal Council set up the COVID-19 Science Task Force at the outset of the pandemic as a source of scientific advice on key issues related to the pandemic. It has since become clear that when it comes to reliable facts, politicians’ and the general public’s expectations of science exceed what the scientific community can deliver on short notice in a pandemic situation. That means we need to do a better job of explaining to society how scientific research works and familiarizing the public with scientific methods. Only then can we avert any damage to the reputation of science and also prevent “fake facts” and conspiracy theories from running rampant. It is essential that science adheres to its clear profile and prevents itself from being instrumentalized by politics. We need to preserve our independence and, in doing so, the trust we enjoy.

In brief

"The universities are relying on Swiss politics to find some way to shift the country back onto a track that makes stable relations with the EU possible and to do so immediately."

Prof. Dr. Christian Leumann, Rector

I used this platform one year ago to point out just how dangerous it could be to Switzerland as a center of education and research if the country is not associated with Horizon Europe, the European research program. Unfortunately, the failure to establish a framework agreement with the EU in May 2021 has made this risk a reality. For the second time in the history of European research promotion, Switzerland is only allowed to participate as a third country, meaning we have nearly no access to the funding vehicles of the European Research Council (ERC). We are also prohibited from heading up major research cooperations and are now only allowed to play a smaller role. Another unclear aspect is whether Switzerland will be allowed to participate in the Erasmus+ mobility program for students and, if so, what form this will take.

Despite the fact that a portion of the financing is now being provided by the Swiss National Science Foundation, some key disadvantages still remain that will jeopardize the competitiveness of Switzerland’s cutting-edge research in the long term. These include, first and foremost, the country’s integration into international research networks as well as the damage this does to our reputation and attractiveness. Which outstanding scientists from the EU will still be interested in attending a Swiss university? And how many Swiss early career researchers will be lured to European universities where they can participate in the world’s largest research network and have better career prospects as a result?

Switzerland has taken first place in the global innovation index for the past ten years, in part due to the enormous investments made in research and development but also thanks to the country’s excellent universities, which had previously been highly attractive to researchers from other countries. These individuals frequently remained in Switzerland even after graduation, which helped the country meet the Swiss economy’s enormous demand for qualified professionals. Swiss universities’ recipe for success has always been their open-door policy for the top minds, regardless of origin.

It’s hard to understand why all this is now being put at risk. The universities are relying on Swiss politics to find some way to shift the country back onto a track that makes stable relations with the EU possible and to do so immediately. Research often relies on long-term programs built on a foundation of trust and this trust must be restored.

Finally, I’d like to take this opportunity to express my most sincere gratitude to our students, researchers and staff for the trust they’ve placed in our university and for their willingness to work hard and achieve excellence, even in difficult situations.