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«We keep a close eye on the researchers»

For 28 years, Manuela Vonarburg has ensured that researchers receive the funding for their research projects on time - and use it correctly. She is about to retire and looks back on her time in the Research Funding department.

Manuela Vonarburg explains how she verifies the financial information.

Manuela Vonarburg, in your work you are responsible, among other things, for the finances related to cancer research funding. What does that mean in concrete terms?
In addition to the scientific aspects, every research proposal that is submitted to us also contains a financial part, where the researchers are required to provide detailed financial information in terms of how much money they will need to carry out the planned research. I check how much money is budgeted for salaries and how much for consumables. And whether this is in line with our specifications. If necessary, I adjust the budget.

Do you also check the actual expenditures in addition to the requested budget?
Yes, but that wasn't always the case. In the beginning, there was less control, but over time we have refined our processes. Funded researchers have become accustomed to submitting their interim and final financial reports and providing an account of their expenditures. For consumables, they must include receipts listing the value of goods purchased. Sometimes expenses that we do not fund are reported, such as attending congresses and hotel accommodations. What is overcharged, must be credited back to the project - or paid back to us at the end of the project. We keep a close eye on the researchers and verify whether they use the funding in the way in which it was granted to them. After all, this funding derives from the generosity of donors, and we apply it wisely.

You have been working in the Research Funding department for almost 28 years. Things must have been very different back then.
Very much so! I started in 1995 with a 40 percent workload. I was paid by the hour and had the task of entering the scientific publications resulting from the funded projects into the database. I used to type all of them in. At that time there were only two of us, our department was called "Scientific Secretariat". Every Tuesday afternoon, the oncologist Walter Weber came from Basel to Bern and looked through the correspondence. The number of research applications has also changed. When I started, we had only about 70 applications a year; today there are more than twice as many. And while our annual funding volume of just over 5  million Swiss francs at the time had to suffice for just under 40 projects, today we can fund over 60 research projects annually with a total of more than 18 million Swiss francs.

What else has changed?
When I started, everything was still on paper. The researchers had to submit 15 paper copies of their project proposals. One copy remained with us, and we distributed the other copies: each member of the Scientific Committee (at that time there were 14 members, today there are 19) received a copy of each application. Then, step by step, it happened. Since 2011, researchers have been submitting their applications online. Today, all applications are entered into our Grant Application Portal, which also helps us with the review process and beyond.

What motivated you in your work?
Actually, health topics are not really my passion, I'm more of a numbers person. I didn't know much about cancer when I started here. But the topic grabbed me. Talking about cancer used to be a taboo topic. And when someone was diagnosed, it was exasperating because back then it was almost considered to be a death sentence. Today, people talk about it more. And the chances of surviving this disease are much greater. Medicine has made great progress during this time. These advances have shown that the researchers we fund are working on something good. This has also driven me in my own work: By providing administrative support to the researchers - and triggering installment payments to them once a month - I, too, have played a part behind the scenes in making cancer treatments so much better today.

She held the reins in the background

Manuela Vonarburg joined the Swiss Cancer League and the Swiss Cancer Research foundation in 1995, where she made sure that the financial information was correct - and that the donations were used wisely. She says: «Thank you very much for your support! Your donation enables progress in the fight against an insidious disease. Investing in research, is money well spent.»