Ensuring Independence of Research

In order to ensure the independence of its research, Agroscope has staked out a clear position in the middle ground between fulfilling its remit for the public sector and for farming practice on the one hand, and for its activity in the national and international research community on the other. Below, we describe what freedom of research – a concept that is important in this context – means at Agroscope, and how the framework conditions necessary for safeguarding the independence of research are being protected. 

The Confederation’s Departmental Research Institution

As a departmental research institution, Agroscope is the Swiss Confederation’s competence centre for research and development in the agriculture, food and environment sector. Based on the statutory requirements, Agroscope is active in the following spheres: 

Departmental research

  • Applied basic research for the further development of Swiss agriculture and food sector policies (including troubleshooting) for the federal authorities and the federal administration;
  • Applied basic research for farming practice (including troubleshooting);
  • Applied research and development of products and methods for stakeholders of the Swiss agriculture and food sector;
  • Knowledge exchange and technology transfer with practice, extension, the scientific and teaching professions, and the general public. 

Enforcement tasks and enforcement assistance1 within the scope of the statutory provisions serving the agriculture and food sector as well as the general public.

As a departmental research institution of the Swiss Confederation, Agroscope is committed to the general public. Agroscope makes an impact by highlighting prospects and developing practical solutions for the main problems of the agriculture and food sector. Agroscope secures the trust of society, policy-makers and practitioners through transparency, early detection, traceability, and the independence of the services it renders.

Agroscope is affiliated with the Swiss Federal Office for Agriculture FOAG (2nd circle) in the Federal Administration. It is strategically managed by Agroscope Council, which defines the strategic targets as well as the substantive framework of Agroscope activities. Said activities are set out in the FOAG’s Agriculture and Food Sector Research Concept 2017 – 2020. 

Masterplan FOAG 2017-2020 (in german) (PDF, 2 MB, 02.01.2018)Forschungskonzept Land- und Ernährungswirtschaft 2017-2020

Freedom of Research in a Departmental Research Institution

As the Swiss Confederation’s departmental research institution, Agroscope does not have the same research freedom as is customary, for example, in university research. Whilst the universities or the federal institutes of technology define their content orientation first and foremost via the appointment of university chairs or the putting out to tender of optional research programmes, Agroscope has strategic objectives and a content framework for its activities. These are fixed for a four-year period in a comprehensive strategy-development process (including a broad-based process for assessing the needs of stakeholder groups, inclusion of the Agricultural Research Council, and involvement of the researchers) and depicted in the research concept for the agriculture and food sector. Here, so-called ‘strategic research areas’ with concrete research issues are defined on the contentual level. These SRAs are geared to the relevant challenges of the Swiss agriculture and food sector for the next five to ten years. On this basis, a work programme is defined with numerous projects that make a contribution to the answering of the research questions.

Within this framework, the Agroscope competence and research divisions with their research groups enjoy research freedom and independence. This means: 

  • No set targets in terms of the design of research projects;
  • Free choice of method for dealing with research issues;
  • No influence on the results of the research activity;
  • Research findings are made available for the national and international research community or published;
  • Agroscope concentrates on the scientifically impartial performance of its mission (including knowledge transfer as part of its role in the Agricultural Knowledge and Innovation System AKIS). The implementation of research results in the political process is the responsibility of the federal agencies and the political actors. 

Third-Party-Funded Research Projects

Agroscope is primarily funded by ordinary federal government budget resources, but also in part by third-party funds. The latter support and strengthen Agroscope in the performance of the duties forming its remit, and help promote the quality of research and development activities as well as increase their impact. In particular, the acquisition and realisation of research-oriented third-party-funded projects helps to open up new research and knowledge domains as well as to build and develop new skills and methods. What’s more, third-party-funded projects enable the selective broadening and deepening of current research activities and innovative development activities that are funded by Agroscope’s ordinary budget as part of the four-year work programme.  Third-party funds thus make a substantial contribution to the long-term performance of tasks falling within Agroscope’s remit.

In 2016, Agroscope used resources totalling CHF 192.6 million (2015: CHF 195.9 million) for research and development activities, policy advice and enforcement. The funds used consisted of a financially impacting CHF 136.3 million, a non-financially impacting CHF 5.2 million, and service charges of CHF 51.1 million. The latter sum essentially comprises the rent remitted by Agroscope to the Swiss Federal Office for Building and Logistics, as well as IT costs.

Since the introduction of ‘Management by Performance Mandate and Global Budget’ (MPM) in the year 2000, Agroscope has continued to expand the percentage of third-party funds, thereby diversifying the financing of its activities. In 2016, third-party-funded projects worth CHF 14.615 million were handled, corresponding to 10.7% of the financially impacting resources (2015: CHF 15.233 million or 10.9%). Measured in terms of total resources employed, 92.4% stem from Agroscope’s ordinary budget and 7.6% are third-party funds and funds from Swiss federal government-owned administrative units.

Important sources of third-party funding for research projects are the Swiss National Science Foundation SNSF (SNSF projects / NRP: 31%); the European Commission (RP7/Horizon2020: 5%); the Commission for Technology and Innovation CTI (10%); Other  public-sector institutions (6%); Not-for-profit organisations (4%); and private stakeholders of the agriculture and food sector  such as companies, sectoral organisations and other private organisations (38%). The rest of the third-party funds relate to various donors (7%). 

Ensuring the Independence and Quality of Research

Agroscope has taken various precautions in order to ensure the independence and quality of its own research. In particular, the said precautions relate to:

  • Planning and carrying out research work (including documentation);
  • Publication of research results and a willingness to engage in public discussion;
  • Disclosure of interests and conflicts of interest. 

There are guidelines for this. They are part of Agroscope’s quality management, and, more specifically, a key component of the research standards, i.e. a collection of standards ensuring the quality of research at Agroscope. In the present context, the following points are particularly important: 

  • At Agroscope, research is based on intellectual honesty. Researchers stand for scientific integrity. To concretise these aspects, Agroscope possesses a Policy on Scientific Integrity in Research and on Good Scientific Practice (PDF, 264 kB, 27/06/17). This policy is compliant with Swiss law, and designed for the Agroscope context. Proposals from the Swiss Academies of Sciences served as a basis for developing the policy. In addition, the ‘Agroscope Instructions for Dealing with Plagiarism’ (PDF, 159 kB, 27/06/17) must be complied with. The Integrity Policy and Instructions for Dealing with Plagiarism are issued to new employees, who must explicitly take note of these regulations. 
  • Quality control by peers: The process of publishing research findings in the national and international research community, e.g. in journals or via presentations at scientific events, is a relevant mechanism for ensuring the quality and hence also the independence of research. The testing of the published results by peers sets the scientific standard (research questions, methodology, data, evaluation, interpretation, etc.), and follows the logic of the research. In addition, periodic evaluations of projects or entire divisions (e.g. so-called ‘peer reviews’) are carried out at Agroscope. These measures prevent the exercise of external influence in departmental research, and particularly in third-party-funded projects, ensuring that results corresponding to the state of the art in research are compiled and published. 
  • Agroscope relies on existing Swiss law when dealing with intangible assets. The handling of intellectual property is governed in the employment contracts of those persons involved in the research process, so the latter explicitly sign a document on this matter. 
  • So-called Material Transfer Agreements (‘MTAs’) are concluded whenever external parties make materials such as e.g. data, seed, plants, plant-protection products, fertilisers, bacteria or similar available to Agroscope for research projects. The MTAs specify what the recipient is allowed to do with the material, and how ownership is regulated. In many cases, the handling and publication of research results are also regulated. MTAs having Agroscope as a party to the contract are project-related, individually tailored agreements, usually without mutual financial compensation. With regard to the research results and their publication, Agroscope grants the parties to the contract the usual information and commentary rights, but no veto rights. The MTAs are checked by the FOAG’s legal service before they are signed by Agroscope. 
  • The reporting of Secondary Employment (PDF, 249 kB, 23.07.2018) by Agroscope employees ensures the disclosure of any existing vested interests. Said interests are made transparent internally in the case of projects, as well as to investors. This lays the groundwork for avoiding conflicts of interest. The following regulations apply:
     
    Pursuant to Article 91 of the Federal Staff Ordinance (including the guidelines of the Swiss Federal Staff Office pertaining thereto), in the Federal Administration, the exercise of secondary employment (i.e. a sideline) as well as public office outside of one’s working relationship with the Swiss Confederation is subject to a general reporting obligation, and also, if need be, to authorisation.  Sidelines and public offices leading to a potential conflict of interest and/or to an adverse effect on performance, and/or which are exercised wholly or partially during customary working hours, are subject to authorisation. 

    The exercise of an activity for the benefit of third parties owing to an employment relationship with the Swiss Confederation must also be reported and authorised. Pursuant to Article 92 of the Federal Staff Ordinance, income thus obtained must be surrendered to the Confederation if, taken together with the employee’s salary for one calendar year, said income exceeds 110 per cent of the maximum amount in the salary category as per the employment contract. 

  • The acceptance of gifts for Agroscope employees is regulated in the Federal Staff Ordinance. Article 93 states as follows: 

    The acceptance of minor, socially customary benefits does not count as the acceptance of gifts as defined by the law. Gifts in kind whose market value does not exceed CHF 200 count as minor benefits. 

    Under conditions defined by the Federal Office of Private Insurance (FOPI), employees involved in an acquisition or decision-making process are also prohibited from accepting minor and socially customary benefits. 

    If for reasons of politeness employees are unable to refuse gifts, they must surrender them to the relevant agency.

    For invitations, similar strict conditions to those defined in the Federal Staff Ordinance apply. 

Impact

According to the reputation monitoring of the Research Institute for the Public Sphere and Society (fög) at the University of Zurich, Agroscope is ideally positioned in the public eye for a research institution. Because of its evidence-based objective communication and networking, Agroscope is perceived all in all as an impartial player.

In both the agriculture and food sector and the administrative sphere, there is strong demand for Agroscope’s services from all stakeholders.

Agroscope is well positioned in the national and international research community, as evidenced by its frequent partnerships with other research institutions as well as its scientific publications. Furthermore, Agroscope and the former research institutions were subject to peer reviews which overall attested to Agroscope’s high scientificity.

It can be stated that to date, there have been no known cases of scientific misconduct on the part of Agroscope employees. 

Conclusion

Freedom of research and independence are ensured at Agroscope within the pre-established framework of a federal departmental research institution. With the standards set – cutting-edge compared to the rest of the industry –the necessary prerequisites are in place, and are being implemented. This also holds especially true for third-party-funded research projects.

1Dealing with tasks in the sphere of enforcement assistance can also involve substantial research components.