Science in Switzerland
Switzerland is renowned for its scientific innovation
With several top-ranked universities and programmes, scientific academies and a strong relationship between the industry and scientific research, Switzerland is at the summit of scientific innovation at a European and global level.
History of science in Switzerland
Switzerland is home to some of the world’s most renowned universities. Their history stretches back to 1460, when the first university was founded in Basel with four faculties for the arts, medicine, theology and jurisprudence.
Since the eighteenth century, the international success of natural science research has played a key role in shaping Switzerland’s image. In fact, the history of scientific definitions of success and scientific rankings is closely intertwined with the history of Swiss science. A botanist named Alphonse de Candolle published the first ever scientific rankings in 1873 and pondered how scientific success could be determined objectively. To answer that question, de Candolle examined the honorary members who had been appointed by the leading science academies such as the French Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society from 1660 to 1870. He found that since the seventeenth century, the academies had appointed a disproportionately large number of Swiss scientists as honorary members. While Switzerland accounted for only one per cent of the European population at the time, it was home to ten per cent of these members.
Switzerland’s image as a very successful nation of science took off in the nineteenth century and has persisted to the present day. The criteria defining this success have certainly changed over the last 200 years, but Switzerland’s cooperation and competition within the international scientific community have remained constant. Among other things, they have resulted in a large number of Swiss scientists and organisations receiving Nobel prizes.
What role does science play in Switzerland today?
Switzerland is not only one of the most innovative research nations in the world but also one of the most competitive. It occupies top rankings according to several criteria, which is no surprise given the amount of money and support it dedicates to research. The following figures outline the importance of science in Switzerland today:
1.2 – the percentage of all scientific papers worldwide published by Swiss researchers, a top figure given the country’s population
2.5 – the percentage of Swiss age cohorts who earn a PhD, the highest rate in the OECD
2.98 – the percentage of inhabitants with doctoral degrees in 2014 – the highest in the world
3.4 – the percentage of Swiss GDP invested in research and development (R&D), placing it fourth in the OECD rankings
269 – the number of patents filed per capita in Switzerland in 2013, making it second only to Japan. In 2014, Switzerland had the highest number of internationally-registered patents per capita in the world
There are strong research links between universities and the industry, which means science plays a significant role in the Swiss economy. Multinational corporations have the financial wherewithal to push research and development, such as in healthcare, and they can provide valuable connections between work done at universities and in the industry. Their partnerships with small and medium-sized businesses, as well as with research and educational institutions and university spin-offs, promote Swiss innovation and create career opportunities in the relevant fields.
Which scientific fields are important in Switzerland?
In the corporate sector, major scientific fields include pharmaceuticals, chemistry, the metal industry and technology, which encompasses the electrical industry. At the state level, research is conducted in fields such as health, education, the environment, migration and security. Switzerland also has four extra-university research centres devoted to important fields, which are addressed in the last section of this article.
As mentioned above, Switzerland is a nation of inventors and patents. Switzerland’s renowned advanced business education offerings demonstrate that business innovation is also an important facet of the country.
How is scientific education organised in Switzerland?
Scientific education takes place overwhelmingly in the higher education sector. Two federal institutes of technology (Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule, ETH and École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne, EPFL) and ten cantonal universities (Universitäten) offer over 500 degree programmes at bachelor, master and doctorate level in twelve specialist areas. The Universities of Applied Sciences (Fachhochschulen) and Universities of Teacher Education (Pädagogische Hochschulen) offer around 300 practical degree programmes in thirteen specialist areas and award bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
In addition to these universities, several institutions, such as the Swiss Academics of Arts and Sciences, promote and shape scientific education. The next section discusses them in greater detail.
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Where does scientific research take place in Switzerland?
The main players in scientific research are the corporate sector and institutes of higher education.
The main areas of activity are foundational research and applied research and development. Foundational research primarily takes place at the federal institutes of technology and universities while applied research and development are the prerogative of the corporate sector and the Universities of Applied Sciences.
The four extra-university research centres operated by the state and the cantons are also involved in research:
Some federal institutes, like the ETH Board, determine the strategic direction, funding and activities of other institutes while others, such as the Swiss Federal Institute for Forestry, Snow and Landscape Research, conduct research in specific areas and across various disciplines. The state supports 30 research institutes outside of universities, and they often address internationally relevant areas of research.
Four academies responsible for promoting research, education, science, and innovation are organised into the Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences: the Swiss Academy of Natural Sciences (Akademie der Naturwissenschaften Schweiz, SCNAT), the Swiss Academy of Humanities and Social Sciences (SAHS), the Swiss Academy of Medical Sciences (SAMS), and the Swiss Academy of Engineering Sciences (Schweizerische Akademie der Technischen Wissenschaften, SATW). The two competence centres TA-SWISS and Science et Cité are also associated with these academies, and their collaboration focusses on foresight, ethics and the dialogue between science and society.