Research in Switzerland
Opportunities for foreign researchers in Switzerland
Switzerland is a world leader in research and development. What are the main research centres, and what opportunities are there for foreign researchers in Switzerland?
Significance of research in Switzerland
Innovation and investment in research is a priority. Switzerland spent more than €5 billion on research and development (R&D) in 2015, which represents about 3 per cent of the country’s GDP – far above the average of 2.4 per cent, and even beating the USA (2.7 per cent) and Germany (2.9 per cent). Approximately 1.2 per cent of all scientific papers worldwide are produced by Swiss researchers – a remarkable statistic, considering the country’s small population.
Scientific research in Switzerland also supports the economy, particularly in areas such as the engineering, electrical and metal industry (the largest industrial employer in the Swiss economy), medical technology and the biotech industry.
Switzerland also prides itself on the international environment of its universities and research centres, with most research work being conducted in English. Some of the most important research in Switzerland, including projects at CERN, the European Space Agency, and European Cooperation in Science and Technology (COST), involves a high level of international collaboration. Strong links with other countries have given Switzerland a significant advantage when it comes to cutting-edge research, and participation in EU research framework programmes has been particularly beneficial in recent years.
Most important research fields and sectors
Switzerland ranks highly for scientific research in all fields. The Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF), the most important public funding research institution in the country, funds a wide range of research topics, from medicine to technology, and there are promising research opportunities for scientists in many different sectors.
Switzerland has a long history of excellence in physics. Leading research is carried out in Geneva at CERN, as well as the prestigious Federal Institute of Technology (Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich, ETH Zurich), and many universities and research centres in the country are renowned for their studies of particle physics.
Life sciences are another key area of research and industry in Switzerland. The University of Basel is an important research hub for life sciences, while the Basel region is considered a world leader in pharmaceutical development due to the high concentration of important companies operating in the industry, including Roche and Novartis.
Top countries for scientific impact of research papers (2011-2015)
Technical Sciences and Engineering, Information Technology
Which institutions carry out research in Switzerland?
Swiss universities have an excellent reputation for research. The Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne, EPFL), Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH Zurich), the University of Zurich, the University of Basel and the University of Bern are regularly ranked as some of the top universities in the world for research and innovation. In the 2019 QS World University Rankings, the ETH Zurich was ranked seventh in the world, and third in Europe. In order to do so well in international rankings, universities must produce outstanding research.
Top Swiss universities, according to international rankings (2019)
The strong track record for research at these universities attracts the best scientists from around the world. The presence of the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva has also played an important part in attracting researchers from leading universities to collaborate on projects in Switzerland.
Some of the most important research is carried out at scientific institutes. Prestigious Swiss research institutes include:
CERN in Geneva (home to the largest particle physics lab in the world)
Paul Scherrer Institute in Villigen and Würenlingen (the largest Swiss national research institute, specialising in natural sciences and technology)
The Swiss Center for Electronics and Microtechnology in Neuchâtel (a public-private partnership research centre specialising in microtechnology and nanotechnology)
Friedrich Miescher Institute for Biomedical Research in Basel (a research centre specialising in life sciences)
Research and development in Swiss industry
According to the 2018 Innovation Indicator study, Switzerland is the second most innovative country in the world. One of the outstanding areas was research and development (R&D) in Swiss industry, particularly ICT and life sciences. The average Swiss company invests 6.6 per cent of revenue in R&D, and many of the world’s largest investors, such as Nestlé, Roche, Novartis and ABB, are based in Switzerland.
Pharmaceuticals is one of the most important areas of R&D in Swiss industry. In 2016, the main Interpharma companies in Switzerland spent approximately €6 million on R&D in pharmaceuticals. Other important R&D centres in Switzerland include Google, food technology company Bühler, and microgravity research company SpacePharma.
Working as a foreign researcher in Switzerland
Nearly 60 per cent of researchers in Switzerland are from other countries, making Switzerland the country with the highest proportion of foreign researchers in the world. The diverse, international environment at universities and research centres makes Switzerland an attractive option for anyone looking to pursue a scientific career in Europe.
Getting residency in Switzerland is dependent on employment; every researcher must get a work and residence permit within 14 days of their arrival in Switzerland, and provide their employment contract. EU or EFTA citizens can obtain a permit quite easily, providing they have a job offer, while citizens of Romania, Bulgaria and Croatia are subject to some restrictions. Workers from other countries can face some challenges in obtaining a permit, as they are admitted only if an employer has not been able to recruit a Swiss, EU or EFTA citizen. However, highly qualified scientists or academics with a degree from a Swiss university stand a better chance of getting a permit.
While English is the lingua franca of scientific research in Switzerland, learning the local language – French, German, Swiss German, Italian or Romansh, depending on the area – will make it much easier for you to integrate.
Costs of living in Switzerland are high, but salaries are also high, particularly for science and research careers. Skilled foreigners can expect a very good salary, especially when compared to other European countries. In 2010, the average monthly salary for a skilled job in the R&D sector was approximately €8,500 (gross). Swiss scientists are among the best-paid in the world.
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Research funding in Switzerland/Swiss research grants
There is a wide range of funding opportunities for scientists in Switzerland. The main source of funding is the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF), which offers support to the whole spectrum of scientific disciplines, from nanoscience to medicine, awarding more than €600 million to applications every year. The topic of the research is usually defined by the researchers themselves, and the majority of the funding schemes are open to all scientists working in Switzerland. The funding period is usually from one to four years, and the minimum amount for a grant is €44,000.
Aside from the SNSF, there are many other institutes offering funding in a range of disciplines. For example:
Innosuisse in Bern (supports R&D projects and encourages entrepreneurs and start-ups)
The Accentus Foundation in Zurich (supports scientific projects with charitable focus)
Fondation Leenaards in Lausanne (offers study grants and supports a range of scientific projects)
Some institutions, such as the International Balzan Foundation and the Marcel Benoist Foundation also award prizes for research. Research funding and grant opportunities in Switzerland are impressive not only for the range of options, but also for the amount of money available. Compared to scientists in other countries, researchers working in Switzerland find it relatively easy to gain financial support for their projects.