Text: Bertrand Tappy
Photo: James king-holmes / Science photo library, newsom, Eric Déroze

My (rough) life as a researcher

Behind every advance in knowledge is at least one research study. between launching funding rounds and publishing their papers in scientific journals, what do the people who advance research do on a day-to-day basis?

If you thought that modern scientists made their brilliant discoveries while taking a bath or fixing the family clock, you’re in for a shock. In the 21st century, several years can go by before research is completed that will support or refute a scientist’s hypothesis.

Before being enlightened, researchers must first possess an in-depth understanding of their field to come up with an original question based on a hypothesis. “Researchers’ work starts with a critical analysis of as many existing sources of information as possible. and this affects the very outcome of their study. They must be certain that no one before them has examined the subject in the same way,” says Vincent Mooser, chief of the department of laboratories at Lausanne University Hospital (CHUV) and vice-dean of research at the Faculty of Biology and Medicine at the University of Lausanne. “this step means attending conferences and reading lots of books and articles. the general public doesn’t know about this step, but it is crucial.”

Once that is done, researchers still haven’t received financing for the study. and if their intuition is as novel as it is promising, the process is far from over! “The next step is what we call ‘research design’,” says Vincent Mooser. “This means determining research methods, the number of volunteers for clinical studies and what measures will be taken, by whom, over what time frame and with what tools. once all that has been wrapped up,”hhe goes on, “the whole package must be submitted and approved by an ethics committee before the data collection phase can be launched.”

And therein is precisely where the sinews of war lie: fundrasing. There is more to it than just buying a laptop and a hard drive. They need to finance equipment (either purchased or rented), work space, services (from testing to data processing), staff salaries, fees charged for submitting the project to various commissions and expenses covered for volunteers. “Funding can come from three sources,” Vincent Mooser says, “government grants, such as from the SNSF, a philanthropic foundation or industry. They each have their advantages and drawbacks.”

But the lack of financial resources is not the only imminent threat weighing on researchers’ shoulders. over the 10 years a study can last, a number of potential pitfalls await them. They may end up with inadequate volunteers or data, inconclusive findings, etc. Researchers at the CHUV benefit from the support of the clinical research centre to lead their project successfully through all phases, from concept development and methodology, until the study is complete. “It’s a life that requires endurance and many qualities other than pure scientific expertise,” says Vincent Mooser. “But the findings make it all worth it, when researchers push the frontiers of knowledge and open new fields of investigation.”

And the final step, i.e., publishing research findings in a scientific journal, is no small feat. the paper can go back and forth – between the writing, rereading and other corrections – over several months before it is finally made public. For this step, proper referencing is vital, as it puts the work into perspective and measures its value. Then there’s the “impact factor”, the savvy mix that measures the importance of the journal which published the paper and the number of citations by other researchers.

Today, more than a million scientific articles are published worldwide every year. That enormous output now causes major problems, to the point of challenging the system of “peer review”. This process requires each paper to be evaluated by an independent committee to uphold standards of quality. Over the past few years, a number of issues have come up regarding lags and negligence. The magazine Technologist suggests that it is high time this technique is replaced with automatic publication followed by review by the entire online scientific community.

And how long would it take a researcher to get there? “it depends on the study,”says Vincent Mooser. “If your work uses an existing database, it might take a maximum of one year, but if you start from scratch, it could take up to 10 years!”

Then what? to know whether a discovery will have a long and prosperous life, it must go through the patenting process, a pre-requisite to commercialisation. and there begins a whole new marathon. ⁄

“The rules of the game are unclear”

Francine behar-cohen* encourages researchers to speak out more to defend and protect their ideas.

Over your career, you’ve had to wear many hats (researcher, entrepreneur, fundraiser). How do you feel about that experience today?

Francine Behar-Cohen - It has certainly been a rewarding one, because you have to learn as you go and are confronted with new people and situations.
However, the problem lies in the lack of transparency in the system, conflicts of interest and the lack of protection for researchers in the system. The game rules are unclear, and people can take advantage of that. many researchers refuse to get involved in promoting their discoveries because they know they risk giving up a bit of their soul. support units have been developed over the past few years, offering immense help with aspects such as intellectual property, but we need to rethink the system. i don’t believe that venture capital is a viable system for long-term projects.

Last year you presented a tedx talk called “no market, go away!”. Do you think that there is still a place for research that promises no return on investment?

Francine Behar-Cohen - Research, yes. development, no. many substanc- es and drugs that are no longer patent protected could still be developed, but who will do that? a number of initiatives aim to develop research for rare diseases, but then who will develop treatments if the research is successful? who will invest those large amounts?

What challenges do the next generation of researchers face?

Francine Behar-Cohen - I think researchers should get more involved in society. they must communicate more and “take their place” in society. the field must open up beyond the scientific world. the gyro gearloose in his laboratory, a reclusive scientist, detached and disconnected from the world can’t survive. we are in a world of communication and must speak out to defend our ideas. that will be our challenge for the future.



Francine Behar-Cohen

Francine Behar-Cohen is the medical director of the Jules-Gonin eye hospital. She headed a research unit at the French Institute of Health and Medical research (INSERM) Focused on understanding eye diseases and therapeutic innovations. Francine behar-cohen also created the start-up optis.


Created more than 60 years ago, the swiss national science Foundation has poured more than 11 billion swiss francs into scientific research in Switzerland, of which more than 800 million francs was in 2013.


Government grants are more selective and therefore more prestigious,
but amounts are often limited. Funds from philanthropic foundations pour in more quickly than from public sources, but amounts are unpredictable. Industry contributes higher amounts, but sponsors are concerned with scientific issues relating to their business. There is a risk of researchers being influenced in their objectives. an agreement between the research institute and the sponsor is required to protect the interests of the institute and is reviewed by its legal department.

Basic Vs. CLinical

Biomedical research covers all work conducted to develop our knowledge of living organisms, but clinical research specifically refers to studies involving humans. Swiss legislation (human research act) governing this area of study went into effect on 1 January 2014. Clinical research can be observational (limited to examining volunteers, as with the Colaus study in Switzerland) or experimental (to test a product, behaviour or device, as with the study on the vac- cine for the ebola virus).

Gyro Gearloose

This disney duck character symbolises the stereo- typical eccentric inventor.