"The typical Swiss compromise is often the best way"
Interview with Nadine Metzger, who was the Representative of the Swiss Federal Administration in the NRP 72 until end of May 2021.
The findings of NRP 72 will be incorporated into the national antibiotic resistance strategy StAR. For this reason, the co-project leader of StAR in the area animals, Nadine Metzger, has been a federal representative in NRP 72 for the last three years. But even before that, as a staff member of the Federal Food Safety and Veterinary Office (FSVO), she was closely involved in the research programme and in contact with researchers and Steering Committee from the very beginning. This June she will be leaving the FSVO and StAR and relinquishing the role of federal representative. In this interview, she talks about her experiences as a mediator between administration and science.
Ms Metzger, as federal representative in NRP 72, you have acted as a bridge between administration and research over the past three years. What exactly was your job?
In a narrower sense, I was to bring the concerns of the administration, in this case the four federal offices involved in the national antibiotic resistance strategy StAR, into the research programme. And conversely, to bring findings and needs from NRP 72 to the administration.
What do you mean by 'in the narrower sense'?
Over the past few years, I have been able to build up a valuable network with scientists. Incidentally, this also applies to other employees of the federal offices involved in StAR. Although NRP 72 provided the context and the main focus, the relationships that have developed are enormously valuable beyond NRP 72.
Can you give an example?
At the FSVO we needed scientific support to produce new therapy guidelines for veterinarians. Since we had good contacts, we were able to approach several scientists in an uncomplicated way. They took over the scientific work and we were able to concentrate on project implementation – a fruitful cooperation for all. This is only possible if there is already a mutual understanding and a basis of trust. And the exchange within the framework of NRP 72 has done a great deal to achieve this.
Do you mean mutual understanding on specific issues?
That, too, in part. But more often there is a lack of a clear idea of what the other's role even is. At the first programme meeting of NRP 72, for example, researchers repeatedly expressed their surprise that the federal offices were not simply implementing certain measures. Measures whose effectiveness against increasing antibiotic resistance is scientifically proven, such as strict bans on certain antibiotics in agriculture. I had to explain that it isn't as simple as that, because the federal agencies have to consider various points of view and are also subject to many constraints.
Can you explain that briefly?
The federal offices receive their mandates from the politicians, and they must always implement them within the existing laws and ordinances and with a given budget. In addition, goals of different federal agencies can lead to conflicts of interest. If, for example, one sector of the economy were to suffer massive losses because of a drive to reduce antibiotic resistance, some other goal would be jeopardised. The spirit of "Swiss compromise" we know so well is often the best way forward in our work. But it calls for concessions from all sides. And is often time-consuming. But once you get that far, it leads to practical, workable solutions.
So, first of all, you have shown in a very basic way how the federal offices work?
Yes, because once it is clear that we cannot simply do everything quickly by legislative decree and that we cannot finance everything, new ways forward emerge. We often act as a mediator by bringing important knowledge to the right partners, raising awareness and introducing new content into the training. And if we recommend something for implementation, it definitely carries weight.
Conversely, has your view of research also changed in certain respects?
Not fundamentally, I have a science background myself. I am aware that research cannot guarantee success, but is always open-ended. And yet misunderstandings do occur, especially when so-called applied research raises high hopes that are then not fulfilled. That's when inflated expectations and unrealistic promises – in roughly equal measure – can collide. Sharing ideas is therefore all the more important, not only when the final results of a project are available, but also regularly during the research phase.
To avoid disappointment?
Rather to draw as much practically relevant information as possible from the research. For us, it is not only ready-to-publish results that are exciting. Nor do we want to implement a scientifically devised measure with total precision for its own sake; we are happy for every single piece of the puzzle that we can use pragmatically in our efforts. For us, researchers have much more to offer than they themselves often believe. This is precisely why the exchange between science and administration that has developed here in recent years is so valuable.
Will this exchange continue? Or will it break off when NRP 72 comes to an end?
It is surely time to think about how we can maintain this flow of information in the future. Clearly, relationships have now developed that will endure. But especially for a topic as complex as antibiotic resistance, we should create structures that ensure long-term exchange. But what I also saw clearly: it depends very much on the personal commitment of each individual. You have to really want this exchange. If you make the effort, it is enormously fruitful and always moves both sides forward, sometimes in unexpected ways.