The Swiss research system strongly adheres to the principles of autonomy, academic freedom and scientific excellence. The strong scientific culture and quality of Swiss research can be seen in the different university rankings, where Swiss universities appear among the leading world institutions. This is also clearly visible in the high impact publications of researchers at Swiss institutions that are above average, especially in natural sciences, life sciences and engineering. A strength of the Swiss research system is the high internalisation of its academic workforce with 57% of its research population coming from abroad. With more than a third of Swiss researchers abroad, Switzerland can also be seen as a platform for the circulation of researchers.
Research in Switzerland is mostly carried out within the ten cantonal universities, the two federal institutes of technology - the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH Zurich) and the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) - as well in separate research institutes.
The main research funding body in Switzerland is the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF). With a yearly budget of above CHF 700 million, its funding policy mostly focuses on curiosity-driven research and the promotion of young academics
The SNSF currently fosters long-term research projects using the mechanism of National Centres of Competence in Research (NCCR).
These centres undertake long-term research projects in areas of strategic importance for the development of science in Switzerland, for the economy of the country, and for Swiss society. Each NCCR has its headquarters at a university or other institution, the “leading house”, and includes a network of other researchers working throughout Switzerland.
NCCRs are expected to provide research of outstanding, internationally recognised quality, knowledge and technology transfer, training for young scientists and promotion of women researchers. Launched in 2001, there have been 28 NCCRs in life sciences, environment and sustainability, technology, information and communication technology, and social sciences and humanities.
Switzerland is home to a number of research institutions that are internationally renowned for their work. For example, the Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI) in Aargau is one of Europe's leading research institutes in the physical sciences.
The European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) near Geneva provides an opportunity for scientists to study the elementary particles which make up the universe. This is done by accelerating particles almost to the speed of light and making them collide. The particle accelerators are circular tunnels built underground.
The Large Hadron Collider (LHC), built in 2008, is part of a quest to explain how particles obtain their mass. One interesting aspect of CERN apart from its research: it was here that the World Wide Web was first developed as a means for scientists to communicate more easily with each other.
The European laboratory of IBM is in Rüschlikon near Zurich. The giant American company has maintained a research laboratory in Switzerland since 1956. The staff come from a number of countries.
As might be expected, Switzerland is also home to specialised research institutes focusing on mountain issues. One example is the Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research (SLF) in Davos. It is part of the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research. Its scientists conduct research on snow, the atmosphere, avalanches and other natural hazards, permafrost and alpine ecological systems, and develop practical applications.
Bilateral research cooperation with countries outside of Europe
Switzerland has broadened the scope of its foreign science policy beyond its traditional Eurocentric focus. It is now actively working to develop bilateral research cooperation ties with countries outside Europe, which have significant potential for the development of science and technology.
In order to provide optimal general conditions for those working internationally in education, research and innovation, Switzerland has entered into bilateral agreements with various countries (e.g. Brazil, China, India, Russia, South Africa, Japan and South Korea). This has helped to foster cooperation and exchange in the area of scientific and technological research.
In addition, bilateral cooperation programmes have been running since 2007 with the aim of developing long-term relations in research. Cooperation is based in the principles of academic excellence, mutual interest and equal financial participation. The Swiss National Science Foundation supports the call for and selection of joint projects, while separate higher education institutions are each responsible for a specific region as ‘Leading Houses’. The Leading Houses make instruments available to promote cooperation and exchange. These are not only targeted at countries with existing bilateral programmes, but rather are also aimed at regions which have great potential for development according to the criteria of Switzerland’s international education, research and innovation strategy.