Switzerland as a Research Location – a Success Story

How the rather unique dual education system in Switzerland enhances the capabilities of scientific research is remarkable. We join Mrs. Angelika Kalt, Director of the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF), to take a closer look.

The dual education system in Switzerland is indeed an achievement many other nations are envious of. The education system here is not exclusive or linear. Its permeability allows access to further education at any time in someone's professional life and this includes access to regular universities as well as to universities of applied sciences.

Mrs. Kalt, the SNSF supports approximately 14'000 researchers and their projects with grants each year. Which areas of research is the SNSF currently most focused on?

The SNSF has only limited possibilities to set a focus. The law on research and innovation funding requires us to promote all disciplines in scientific research that are represented in Swiss research institutions. As a result, the range of topics is enormously broad and this means, that almost 80 percent of our budget is reserved for projects for which we do not provide any framework or limitations in terms of content or intervene in any aspect of the research. For our institution, it is of utmost importance to offer the best possible funding schemes that work efficiently and which do not place too many restrictions on the researchers. This effort is a direct result of our firm conviction that research stems from the intrinsic curiosity of human nature and that research only becomes cutting-edge when researchers are given the opportunity to investigate questions and challenges they themselves consider essential. This approach improves the quality and the personal commitment considerably. We also differentiate between researchers who are permanently employed at a university and receive funding for their research projects only and young, not yet established researchers, who receive salaries in addition to research funds. However, in both groups funds can only be obtained in competition.

The SNSF itself sets priorities where we see possibilities to improve research results. For example, we realised about 10 years ago that little research is carried out with patient data resulting in a disadvantage for an entire sector. That is the reason why we made funds available for cohort studies. Generally speaking, the digitalisation is a major issue at this point in time. In the humanities, there really is a need for action to boost research.

Currently, countless pharmaceutical companies are involved in research programmes for a vaccine against Sars-CoV-2 or the development of rapid and reliable test kits. Switzerland is competing in the top league here. To what extent do you think that basic research funded by the SNSF has contributed to the success?

Basic research plays a very important role in innovation and using the example of COVID-19, we can explain it well. The rapid test kits and vaccines are currently undergoing intensive research. Their foundations, however, are the product of earlier findings from basic research - maybe dating back years. Questions such as: What is the structure of such a virus? How does such an infection spread? Also, without the detailed specification of certain surface proteins, it would not be possible to research a vaccine today. The SNSF has been funding basic research in the field of corona viruses since 2004, which was certainly not very spectacular at the time. But even then, the high risk factor of this virus was recognised and research into it began accordingly. The fact that it is possible to identify these specific proteins today is due, in part, to cryo-electron microscopy. The Swiss chemist Jacques Dubochet was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2017 for this discovery which he made a long time ago.

Of course, we are currently directly supporting a number of projects which are intended to help develop a reliable and functioning vaccine as soon as possible. We are also involved in the field of diagnostics for more reliable tests and in the area of treatment of patients who are already affected by the virus.

Of all Swiss Baccalaureate [=Matura] qualifications, the professional Baccalaureate [=Matura] already accounted for 38.8% in 2017 and this figure seems to be rising steadily. To what extent do you see the dual education system as an advantage for Switzerland as a research location?

I believe the dual education system plays an important role in Switzerland as a location for research and science. I would like to mention that we cooperate closely with universities of applied sciences. These research projects are often of a practical nature and the number of applications submitted has risen in recent years - we can see that. The permeability of our system is believed to be excellent. Speaking from my own experience - before I joined the SNSF, I was a professor of Geosciences at the University of Neuchâtel, where I also supervised students who came to the university following second education paths. These students were always the most enthusiastic and experienced, posing the most critical questions. It was my personal impression and I have always appreciated that motivation, which they brought to the institution from their former profession. Such students have the potential to become highly interested and motivated researchers.

I think it is important to mention that not only people who have studied but also those who have decided on a purely professional path of further education are central to our research location. No research project works without well-trained specialists and in Switzerland we enjoy a high level of quality in all professional disciplines - an enormous advantage. If you look at start-ups for instance, you will find experts in the teams from the professional world with many years of experience in their field.

The dual education system unites the academic and professional worlds and promotes mutual understanding. Is this one of the possible reasons why research in Switzerland is oriented towards practical benefits and why there is a strong environment for innovation?

For me, the most valuable thing about our dual education system is effectively that it brings both worlds together. There are people who ask critical questions and contribute to research, but who, on the other hand, also have an in-depth understanding of what research entails. For that reason, Switzerland is an interesting location for international companies, with the ability to provide highly skilled personnel also outside the research sector.

But I think it would be wrong to conclude that research in Switzerland should become more use-oriented as such. Some results in basic research remain unused for 30 or 40 years because for example the technology for applications may not be sufficiently advanced. But despite all this, as mentioned earlier with the ongoing research on COVID viruses, this can quickly change. What can certainly be said is that in Switzerland there is a greater awareness of the fundamental importance of basic research in politics, in industry and in the public. At the SNSF, we will strengthen our efforts to bring researchers into contact with potential customers in the respective industries and in the public domain.

Certain trends must also exist in research. In which direction are they heading?

In recent years, the number of projects has increased, through intensified international cooperation and through collaboration across different disciplines. There is also a noticeable increase in the number of instruments required to match theses different needs. One trend that will certainly grow even more strongly, is research with data, i.e. with databases - an important topic for example in medical research, but also in the social sciences today. Switzerland is lagging behind here, particularly in the public sector and is in urgent need to catch up, in the form of public-private partnerships, for example.

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