Swiss officials will be pushing Zurich’s candidacy to host an international brain research centre at this week’s meeting of the Global Science Forum (GSF).
The Swiss are hoping that the neuroinformatics facility will reinforce ongoing research in the Zurich area and boost the country’s reputation as a scientific powerhouse.
Neuroinformatics uses mathematics, computer science and statistics to understand the data derived from brain research. Over the past few years, scientists at Zurich University and the Federal Institute of Technology have been recognised locally for their work in this field.
But international recognition has been less forthcoming, according to Paul-Erich Zinsli, deputy director of the State Secretariat for Education and Research (SER).
“Science funding has not grown as much as we had hoped, so this centre would be a way of making what Switzerland does in this field internationally known,” Zinsli told swissinfo.
“Zurich is already a centre for neuroinformatics, with a good track record that has been built up since the 1990s,” he added. “But it has had no international coordinating activity so far.”
The international neuroinformatics secretariat, a coordination facility, has been under discussion for over a year by the GSF, an outgrowth of the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
Switzerland is just a member state, a small one at that, and as such cannot set the agenda.
“We do not focus on many points, but prefer to concentrate on the issues we feel concern us and where we can play a leading role,” said Zinsli. “It’s obvious though that we cannot match the weight of larger nations such as France or Germany in these Forum meetings.”
The decision to push for the coordination centre follows this strategy.
“The basic idea was mooted because there are very good research teams in Zurich who could take on this international role,” Zinsli told swissinfo.
The competition for the centre has been anything but fierce so far. Only the Swedes have indicated that they too might be interested, but have yet - unlike the Swiss – to table a formal proposal.
But with any decision still some time off, the race is far from over.
The final choice of a site for the coordination facility will depend on the offers made to the GSF. Criteria such as infrastructure, ease of access and what can be done to facilitate the work of international researchers will be taken into account.
“Switzerland is prepared to provide the basic infrastructure – rooms, labs, computer equipment – while general operating costs would be shared between the countries that decide to participate,” said Zinsli. “Financial incentives are usually not part of the package.”
According to the deputy director of the SER, Switzerland will have another ace up its sleeve at decision time.
“Zurich’s chances of success are boosted by our experience in hosting international organisations and companies,” he said.
The neuroinformatics centre may be the only chance for the Swiss of hosting a new international research facility in the near future, with most projects at the GSF long-term endeavours.
“The issue of how to coordinate knowledge from brain research, specifically neuroinformatics, has been discussed for some time now,” admitted Zinsli. “This is the end of a long process and it’s the only secretariat up for grabs at this time.”
swissinfo, Scott Capper
The Global Science Forum provides a venue for consultations among senior science policy officials from OECD member countries.
The GSF helps members formulate and implement policies.
It does this by exploring opportunities for international cooperation; defining frameworks for science policy decisions; and addressing issues of global concern.
Research groups from the Federal Institute of Technology and Zurich University have collaborated within the Institute of Neuroinformatics since 1995.
The international neuroinformatics coordination facility will employ five to ten people, depending on funding.
Countries joining the secretariat will contribute at least SFr1 million ($826,300) to the project.
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