Organisation of Science and Research in Switzerland

The division of tasks between the private and public sectors in the field of research and innovation has established itself over time, with most basic research being carried out by the cantonal universities and the two federal institutes of technology (ETHZ and EPFL). Applied research and development and the transfer of knowledge into marketable innovations, however, is primarily the domain of the private sector and universities of applied sciences.

Panorama view in a hall in the Paul Scherrer Institute
The Paul Scherrer Institute is the largest research centre in Switzerland for the natural and engineering sciences. © Institut Paul Scherrer

Switzerland is very competitive in the field of research and innovation. It is also among the countries with the highest spending on research and development (R&D) in relation to their gross domestic product. The private sector bears the cost of over two-thirds of Swiss R&D expenditure, which amounts to 3.4% of GDP, or around CHF 22 billion (2015). Public research funding hinges mainly on the proactive work of researchers, the principle of competition and international cooperation.

The Confederation is responsible for providing grant funding for research and innovation in the following areas:

  • Switzerland’s two national universities, the federal institutes of technology, in Zurich (EPFZ) and Lausanne (EPFL), are renowned worldwide for their cutting-edge scientific output. There are also four research institutes within the ETH domain, including the Paul Scherrer Institute, one of Europe's leading research centres. Scientists from all over the world come to use their specialist facilities like the Swiss Light Source and the Spallation Neutron Source.
  • The Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) supports basic research in all scientific disciplines, from history to medicine and engineering. Every year, it funds over 3,200 projects involving 14,800 researchers.
  • The Swiss Innovation Agency, Innosuisse (formerly the Swiss Commission for Technology and Innovation ) supports science-based innovation in the interests of industry and society, making Swiss start-ups and SMEs more competitive.
  • For its part, the Confederation funds the Association of Swiss Academies and supports nearly 30 non-university research institutions.

International research collaboration is high on the agenda of the federal government. Switzerland is involved in numerous international research organisations (e.g. CERN) and research programmes, and promotes bilateral research cooperation with selected priority countries. As regards education, research and innovation, Switzerland is officially represented abroad by embassy counsellors and Swissnex, a network of diplomatic scientific representations.

The State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation (SERI) assumes most of the federal government's responsibilities. As well as managing and funding Switzerland’s two federal institutes of technology (ETHZ and EPFL), the SERI is in charge of regulating and co-funding Swiss universities of applied sciences and supporting the cantonal universities. SERI also develops international research strategies.

For their part, the cantons promote research in their role as funding bodies of the cantonal universities and universities of applied sciences. They receive financial support from the federal authorities to carry out this mission.