Science and Research – Organisation and Funding

Science and research in Switzerland is essentially organised by two bodies: applied research and its transformation into marketable innovations is primarily the domain of the private sector and the universities of applied sciences, whereas the public sector creates ideal conditions for research and is responsible for basic research at universities and at the federal institutes of technology.

Think Swiss' infographic showing key figures on science in Switzerland.

Switzerland is very competitive in terms of research and innovation. In relation to its GDP, Switzerland spends more on research and development (R&D) than most countries. The 2017 expenditure of 3.4% of GDP amounts to over CHF 22 billion. Basic research in Switzerland takes place mainly at the federal institutes of technology and at universities. On the other hand, applied research and development and the transfer of knowledge into marketable innovations are primarily the domain of the private sector and the universities of applied sciences.

Private research as a driver of product development

Private companies account for over 70% of R&D in Switzerland. In particular, major companies from the pharmaceutical and mechanical engineering industries as well as from the R&D sector play a significant role (ABB, Novartis, Roche, Hyundai Electric, Oracle, and Biogen, to name but a few). Although these companies also conduct basic research, applied research is their main focus. Their primary objective is to develop marketable products. Switzerland offers companies outstanding conditions for their research activities. It is no coincidence that the Nobel Prize-winning IBM research laboratory and Google's European research centre are located in Switzerland.

The public sector lays foundations

State institutions at all political levels lay the groundwork for excellent research and successful innovations. Among other things, they guarantee the quality of education at all levels, provide public infrastructure and ensure a reliable political and legal environment. The Confederation promotes science and research by operating and funding various research programmes and institutions:

  • Switzerland's two federal institutes of technology (ETH Zurich and EPFL) are renowned worldwide for their cutting-edge scientific output. The Federal Institutes of Technology domain also comprises four research institutions, including the Paul Scherrer Institute – one of Europe's leading research facilities. Scientists from all over the world come to this institute in order to gain access to facilities such as the Swiss Light Source and the Spallation Neutron Source.
  • The Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) promotes fundamental research in all scientific disciplines, ranging from history to medicine and engineering. Each year, it supports over 5,800 projects involving some 18,700 researchers.
  • The Swiss Innovation Agency (Innosuisse) supports science-based innovation in the interests of the economy and society, thereby strengthening the competitive position of Swiss SMEs and start-ups.
  • The Confederation also funds the Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences as well as almost 30 research facilities outside of higher education institutions.

The cantons, which are responsible for the universities of applied sciences and other universities, are also active in promoting research. The universities of applied sciences, in contrast to the universities, are tasked with conducting applied research. This is thanks to the close connection between the universities of applied sciences and the labour market.

The public sector funds research according to basic liberal principles; funds are allocated – based on the researchers' personal initiative – on a competitive basis, with the quality of the applications submitted as the determining factor. The promotion of international cooperation constitutes a further cornerstone of Switzerland's science and research policy.