Phase 2 Contract Signed: Outcome & Outlook

It is now almost 2 years ago when I could announce in “The Messenger” the decision of the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) to grant a second 4-year phase for our NCCR. Meanwhile, namely on May 1st 2018, this second funding phase has started and the transition was so smooth that most of our members probably barely noticed it. The management and the steering committee, however, were a bit nervous to start this second funding phase without knowing what the exact budget for the coming four years will be. The feeling was like being in the middle of building a house – having to decide on many details regarding bath, kitchen and roof – without yet knowing how much mortgage the bank is going to give you. The decision on the funding level was dependent on the SNSF’s comparative evaluation of all 8 NCCRs of the 4th series, which was finished only in December 2018.

Our nervousness turned into relief and happiness, when just before Christmas we were informed that the NCCR RNA & Disease was one of the three topranked NCCRs that would receive a 7.5% increase in the SNSF contribution. Making things even better, the University of Bern thereupon decided to also increase their contribution by 7.5%. Our network had grown so much during the first phase that we were preparing for substantial financial cuts on many of our activities (as outlined in our full proposal for phase 2), but thanks to the unexpected additional money, the extent of these cuts will now be more moderate and essentially all planned projects can be implemented.

Another positive consequence of the improved funding situation is that we could integrate into our NCCR as a full member Jacob Corn, the new professor of genome biology at the ETH (since Oct 2018) and an internationally renowned expert in genome editing. His profile and research interests match perfectly with our NCCR’s mission and we are looking forward for fruitful collaborations with his team in the future.

While our various research projects are making steady progress and the past year has seen many first publications originating from collaborative research initiated among different NCCR member groups, a description of these projects here would go beyond the scope of this brief summary about the state of the network. Nevertheless, I want to reiterate that I judge these collaborations to be the most important achievement and biggest addedvalue of the NCCR RNA & Disease.

In terms of our networking activities, the undisputed recent highlight was the joint retreat between our NCCR and the Vienna RNA community near Salzburg in February (see page 5 in this Newsletter), and the next highlight is just around the corner: in August, the third NCCR RNA & Disease Summer School “RNA Regulation in Health and Disease” will take place in Saas-Fee and the organisers (Constance Ciaudo, Ana Marques and Raffaella Santoro) have put together a great program with an amazing list of teachers. When looking at the program, I wish I could be a PhD student again.

A topic that we have discussed on several occasions in the past was that we should try to improve our efforts in developing our research findings towards medical applications or into products that have the potential for commercialization. In order to incentivize all our members and associate members to propose and develop such projects, we made two calls for postdoctoral fellowships (consult the KTT section of the NCCR’s website), one of them requiring a collaboration with clinicians at the Inselspital Bern, and the other requesting a succinct plan on how to convert a research finding into a product or a concrete medical application. The application deadline for both calls has meanwhile past and the evaluation of the proposals has been initiated. I am very curious to find out who in our network will be able to develop the most promising translational research projects.

Last but not least, a group of people led by our communication delegate David Gatfield and the scientific officers has worked intensively, but thus far mostly behind the scene, to substantially boost and professionalize our communication activities. The harvest of all these preparative efforts has yet to come, but we can already look forward to the soon launch of a new webpage addressed to the lay public with the main goal of getting kids and young adults interested in life science. Ideas for entertaining and educational content for this website are highly welcome and should be forwarded to David, Larissa and Dominik.

That’s all for now, enjoy reading this issue of “The Messenger”!

Oliver Mühlemann, Director NCCR RNA & Disease