"We should shine a much brighter spotlight on international research networks"

Martin Grosjean, the director of the Oeschger Center, is also the co-chair of PAGES (Past Global Changes) since 2023. He shares his views in an interview about the role of international research networks and the importance of PAGES for the University of Bern’s reputation.

Mr Grosjean, a major PAGES symposium will be held in Bern on 1 June. The most important international network for research into the climate of the past, PAGES, brings together 5000 researchers from 120 countries and has its headquarters at the University of Bern. Why are such research networks important? 

Martin Grosjean: Typically, a research group comprises about ten researchers. This means that only a limited number and size of projects can be tackled at any one time. On the other hand, in international research networks such as PAGES, it’s possible to launch projects in which dozens of research groups around the world work together on a research question, for which there are no other means. Resources can be pooled, and projects can be carried out that would otherwise not be feasible.

Can you give us an example?

The PAGES 2K initiative, for example, has produced a global, regionally and annually resolved reconstruction of the climate of the past 2,000 years. This is a scientifically extremely important product, and caused quite a stir. The project began in 2004 with one group making a climate reconstruction of the last 500 years for Europe. Then a group was formed for South America, and finally others, across all the continents. After about seven years of collaboration, the puzzle pieces finally fit to create a global overview...

...which then also found its way into the Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Exactly. The reconstruction of the global surface temperature during the last 2000 years is part of the sixth IPCC report. The corresponding figure can be found in the Summary for Policymakers, where only the most important and pressing information is summarized and presented.

How does a PAGES research project come about?

The network is grassroots driven. Researchers can get together and put forward a proposal for a PAGES working group. These working groups have a specific goal, such as the reconstruction of flood events for the Holocene in the Alpine region, which we were involved in, here in Bern. Bernese researchers are also active in a group that studies the consequences of volcanic eruptions on climate and society. Any, and all, interested researchers can participate in PAGES activities.

What does PAGES bring to the University of Bern as a host institution?

More than one would think - and more than is being taken advantage of at the moment. The network's more than 5000 members from 125 countries know that PAGES is based at the University of Bern. It is really important for the University of Bern’s reputation that this worldwide community knows that Bern is one of the leading centres of paleoclimate research, and thus, of climate research in general.

Why is the PAGES headquarters actually located in Bern?

That goes back to Hans Oeschger, a Bernese climate research pioneer, after whom the Oeschger Center is named. PAGES was founded in 1991 by him, and together with a handful of colleagues, they were able to convince both the Swiss National Science Foundation and the U.S. National Science Foundation to establish the network, and provide long-term funding. Over time, the Swiss Academy of Sciences, SCNAT (under the State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation) has taken over financial support for the Swiss part of the network.

Recently, PAGES has also been co-funded by the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS). What do the funders expect?

The answer probably lies in the fact that these kinds of  networks provide research services that no one else is capable of. And, financial support for PAGES is potentially associated with a good reputation - with leadership. Basically, it's very difficult to secure funding for an international network because no one really wants to take charge. During the Trump era, the U.S. withdrew its funding from PAGES, and European countries didn’t want to step in. In the end, CAS was persuaded. Since 2019, CAS can appoint one of the co-chairs, as was previously the case with the U.S., together with a co-chair from Switzerland. CAS values PAGES very highly: the PAGES Symposium on June 1 will be attended by a six-member delegation from China, including Gao Hongjun, vice president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Has anything changed at PAGES since China has become involved?

No. The internal PAGES regulations have remained unchanged, and the SCNAT guidelines have been adopted by CAS one-to-one. For example, how and by whom the ‘board’ is composed, and how decisions are made. 

In addition to PAGES, other international research networks are also based in Bern.

Yes. In the field of environmental research, we have the Mountain Research Initiative, the Global Mountain Biodiversity Assessment and, until the beginning of this year, the Global Land Project was also based in Bern. These networks function under the umbrella of the global sustainability program of Future Earth. The fact that several project headquarters of this program under Future Earth are stationed at a small university like Bern is very unusual, but makes perfect sense, because "sustainability" is one of five main topics of the University of Bern’s Strategy 2030. Bern plays a leading role internationally in all areas of sustainability.

What do you think is amiss?

…in my opinion, the University of Bern takes far too little advantage of this fact, despite "internationalization" being part of the university’s Strategy 2030. To improve international visibility, we should be shining a much brighter spotlight on these research networks - and, conversely, we should engage these networks to help the University of Bern gain more visibility. It’s a give and take situation.

(Source: "uniaktuell" 31 May 2023)