"Research helps to raise public awareness"

Porträtbild Alexander Grob

Professor Alexander Grob, President of the Steering Committee, offers an introduction to NRP 76.

Mr Grob, in 2017 the Federal Council approved 18 million Swiss francs for the NRP "Welfare and Coercion". How did this NRP come about?

Before 1981, compulsory social measures and placements were part of the Swiss welfare and guardianship system. There were only few established procedural rights at the time and the people affected by these drastic measures often suffered great hardship. Today, the Federal Council and the Swiss parliament recognise the suffering that was caused through the disregard of their fundamental rights. On behalf of the Federal Council, the Swiss National Science Foundation set up NRP 76 to investigate compulsory social measures and placements in their broader context, covering their history up to the present and looking ahead into the future.

What are the aims of the NRP?

The research conducted as part of the NRP will contribute to our understanding of the injustices suffered by many people and raise public awareness of these injustices. The researchers will analyse the characteristics, mechanisms and impact of Swiss welfare policy and its practices. It should identify possible causes of welfare practices that had an impact on the integrity of the persons concerned and identify how they were affected by these practices. We want to cover the history of welfare and coercion in a way that will enable us to analyse current and future challenges. The NRP has a broad target audience. Politicians and people working in public offices expect to gain knowledge supporting their decision-making processes. In addition, we want to sensitise practitioners and the public to different forms of social exclusion in the context of child and adult protection.

What do you think of the range of topics covered by the 22 research projects selected for the programme?

We selected 22 promising and scientifically excellent projects, which will now be set up at universities and private institutions all over Switzerland. The projects cover a wide range of topics. They will explore the role of the authorities in placing children, the rights of children and their parents, the significance of normative ideas about child-rearing and social measures, the influence of medical and forensic reports but also the experiences of the people affected and the question of how their experiences affected their lives. Meticulous scientific work takes time. We expect first results by 2021. A synthesis of the results with key conclusions is planned for 2024.

The Steering Committee of NRP 76 came to the conclusion that certain topics are not yet fully covered. For this reason, the Swiss National Science Foundation plans to launch a second call in 2018. It will presumably call for projects on forced adoption, the role of civil society players and the passing on of social, material and psychological disadvantages from one generation to the next.

Such sensitive issues call for careful handling: how do you ensure that the researchers of NRP 76 proceed ethically?

The researchers are responsible for running the projects according to scientific standards. Some of the data they work with are sensitive, so they have to ensure that privacy laws are respected at all times. The Steering Committee of NRP 76 supervises the entire research programme and has to take action when rules are infringed. The SNSF has the right to impose sanctions when grantees fail to respect the rules or breach them. The institutions employing the researchers also sanction misconduct.

In anticipation of the challenges, the SNSF proactively sent ethical guidelines to the researchers whose projects were approved. The document focuses on topics such as confidentiality and privacy of the persons affected, their social environment and their descendants. In the same document, the Steering Committee also specified the rules and requirements for conducting interviews with victims.

How will the persons affected come into contact with the research?

In the coming years, NRP 76 will regularly communicate information about the ongoing projects - via newsletters, personal contacts and the website. Dialogue events and publications are planned as of 2020 and will be geared to different target audiences, including people who were personally affected by compulsory social measures and whose lives were shaped by the experience. In many projects, researchers will interview people who had to endure such measures. This is where the closest collaboration between researchers and victims will take place - in a research context that allows them to contribute.