April 27th 2021
"We want to be measured by impact in global child health."
It’s only a little more than two years since the BRCCH started operations. Since then, the research centre has already achieved important milestones, launched major research initiatives and sharpened its focus. In this conversation about the first two years and the future of the BRCCH, the centre's two directors, Georg Holländer and Sai Reddy, talk with journalist Felix Müller.
Georg Holländer and Sai Reddy, it’s only a little more than two years since the BRCCH started operations. What would you call your biggest achievement during this initial phase?
Georg Holländer: I'm delighted that we succeeded in putting together and starting a couple of aspirational and important programmes. First and foremost, I’d like to mention the Multi Investigator Programmes – we call them MIPs. Under their umbrella, we managed to draw together highly competitive research groups from different institutes to work on questions that otherwise could not be addressed in this fashion. The second achievement is that within these first two years, we have been able to successfully engage with our two partner universities in creating paths toward professorial posts as well as defining new areas that would align with the Centre’s research focus and benefit from further academic strength.
Indeed, you came out of the starting blocks very fast …
Sai Reddy: … which was not self-evident at all! ETH Zurich, University of Basel and our two additional partners, UKBB and Swiss TPH, have different philosophies, perspectives and historical strengths. This could have been a challenge for us, but we were able to pull together a very broad coalition of researchers from both universities in this short time. In a lot of ways, it's an extremely constructive and balanced constellation; we truly feel both interdisciplinary and inter-institutional. Both universities have embraced us and we, likewise, feel embedded in them.
GH: And, thanks to the openness of these two universities and all four partners, we can count on an ongoing dialogue to underpin what we're trying to achieve.
If you are embedded within the universities though, what about your own identity as the BRCCH?
SR: Yes, since our current projects come from existing research groups at both universities, we are really part of them. With the recruitment of new professorships, it will help to establish a more unique identity over time.
GH: My wish is that we will always be understood as a partner of equal standing. And that this applies to all our partners.
When the founding of the BRCCH was announced in autumn 2018, another partner played a prominent role – Fondation Botnar, the Centre’s main donor. Was there ever any confusion about who was who?
GH: In the beginning, we sometimes received communications that were clearly addressed to and meant to be for the foundation rather than the BRCCH. But over time it became easier for people to differentiate between the two entities. Especially the local community has embraced our BRCCH identity and our role as an independent research centre.
COVID-19 has disrupted many organisations. How did the pandemic affect your activities?
SR: When Fondation Botnar contributed a significant sum to a BRCCH fast track call for COVID-19 research projects, in just two weeks we received almost 80 applications.
Two weeks? That’s an incredibly short time span to come up with a scientific research proposal.
SR: The speed was driven by the motivation of the science community to respond swiftly. Science can move quickly if people collaborate and pull together. It is really amazing to look at what has already been learned and the data gathered about the virus to date. While not directly related to child health research, it is nevertheless critical for global health – and that means it’s critical for children’s health as the pandemic impacts families and society. Because the BRCCH also has a keen interest in supporting global health in low- and middle-income countries, areas where COVID-19 is going to continue due to lack of vaccine supply, we aim to stay on top of this and remain involved.
GH: We have also started to see that the disease changes its face and that the causative virus mutates under selective pressure. With emerging new variants new questions also arise. And we see more and more young people, amongst them children, being affected. This area of research will clearly keep us engaged and challenged for an extended period of time.
Indeed child health is a broad field. How do you keep the BRCCH focused?
GH: There is so much that could and should be done in child health. But the impact and the sustainability of the BRCCH will come from the fact that we can look at and focus on a number of very relevant issues in global child health. These we can analyse in depth. The first two years of the BRCCH have focused on areas where we think, collectively with our partners, substantial step-changing contributions can be made. Even with the very generous funding available to us, we will only effectively contribute to change if we don't spread our activity too broadly and thus too thinly. We know it is important to stick to an overall strategic plan in order to deliver on our remit, but that doesn't mean the programme pursued is static – as we've just seen with COVID-19 research. We need to regularly check whether our priorities are still the correct ones; we are currently undergoing our first evaluation process as part of such an effort. After two years, this is a good time for external experts to review our research strategy and structure.
How exactly will the external evaluation support your activities?
GH: I hope it will provide us with a critical reflection of the focal scientific areas we have chosen and where we believe we can make a difference. The evaluation is expected to enable us to go forward in the correct direction and in a focused manner to deliver on what is needed.
SR: This is difficult to say since it is an independent evaluation. But feedback about how to ensure our work is sustainable would be welcome, about how to build a sustainable centre that can grow as well – not simply keep to our path, but how we can be creative and adapt to that path as it unfolds.
“Focus”, too, is a word you emphasise. So what is the BRCCH’s focus for the rest of 2021?
SR: Soon a decision will be made on applications for a postdoc excellence programme in support of young researchers who are trying to find, and make a transition to, independent careers in child and adolescent health research. We also plan to roll out a principal investigator initiative, which is funding related to slightly smaller projects than our MIPs. Furthermore, we hope to start recruiting for three, out of a total of six, planned professorships by the end of the year.
In which fields are the professorships?
GH: One is in molecular diagnostics, and affiliated primarily with ETH and the Department of Biosystems Science and Engineering. The second professorship is related to digital medicine and health at University of Basel, Faculty of Medicine. And then we have a third one that is going to look at the ethics of childhood digital health and data. It too will be hosted by ETH and associated with the Department of Health Sciences and Technology.
If we look to the future, to the end of your first 10 years in 2028: What headline would you like to read about your work?
SR: I would hope to see a headline that would relate to our early MIPs – these are the ones that have the longest possible time to achieve their goals and make a clinical or translational impact.
GH: I fully agree. We want to be measured by impact. But more than that – in 10 years when we look back, I hope we can say it was a good idea to bring these two universities together in the context of the BRCCH, and that through this collaboration we could make real contributions to global child health and well-being.
To make an impact requires collaboration on local and global level. What about your networks and their growth in the past two years?
GH: Given the design of the Centre, we largely depended on the competencies and contributions of researchers based at our partner institutions. This meant drawing on a broad network via our partner institutions at the beginning. But as we move into new and paediatric-related domains, we need to broaden and establish additional networks to complement existent expertise locally. So it’s gratifying that after only two years, we have a research portfolio that involves international collaborators from 18 countries – this augurs well for future outreach.
Sai, Georg – final words: What were your most uplifting moments during the past two years?
SR: For me it’s been the positive support received from all stakeholders around us – especially all our partners, our Board, Scientific Advisory Board, and clearly Fondation Botnar. Each step of the way has been met with positivity and enthusiasm. The trust we’ve been given has been really great.
GH: Since Sai looked outside and commented on the interface with our partners, let me look inside. I'm particularly delighted to have a very collegial, hard-working team that shares a set of core values and goals that we wish to collectively achieve. I am happy to say that we are all pulling on the same strings, and singing from the same hymn sheet. That makes our endeavour so much more fun because it demonstrates a very deep common understanding about what we want to achieve.
Thanks for your time. All the best.
Interview: Felix Müller