Science and research – organisation and funding

In Switzerland, science and research are essentially organised in two, separate domains: applied research and the implementation of marketable innovations are primarily the domain of the private sector and universities of applied sciences. The public sector, on the other hand, creates optimal research conditions and is responsible for basic research at universities and federal institutes of technology.

Woman with one arm in a therapy robot with a monitor as a visual aid.
The public sector finances basic research and the private sector finances the implementation of marketable innovations. ©ARMin, ETH Zurich

Switzerland is highly competitive when it comes to research and innovation. In relation to its GDP, it spends more than most countries on R&D. The annual expenditure of around 3% of GDP in this area amounts to over CHF 20 billion. In Switzerland, basic research is conducted primarily at the federal institutes of technology and the universities. Applied research and development and the implementation of knowledge into marketable innovations are, on the other hand, primarily the domain of the private sector and universities of applied sciences.

Private research focused on product development

Two thirds of research and development in Switzerland is conducted by private companies. Large companies active in the pharmaceutical, research and development, and machinery sectors play a key role here. Prime examples of such companies include Roche, Novartis, STMicroelectronics, Nestlé and ABB. Although these businesses also undertake basic research, their predominant focus is on applied research aimed mainly at developing commercially viable products. Switzerland offers companies ideal conditions for their research. Indeed, it stands to reason that the Nobel Prize-winning IBM Research Laboratory and Google's European research hub are located in Switzerland.

Public sector laying the groundwork

State institutions at all levels of government ensure that conditions conducive to outstanding research and innovation are in place. Among other things, they assure the quality of education at all levels, provide public infrastructure and ensure a stable political and legal environment. The federal government promotes science and research by operating and funding various research programmes and institutions:

  • Thanks to their achievements in the natural sciences, the two federal institutes of technology in Zurich and Lausanne have earned an excellent reputation worldwide. Four research institutions, including the Paul Scherrer Institute, one of Europe's leading research centres, are also part of the same domain. Scientists from all over the world visit the Paul Scherrer Institute to gain access to facilities such as the Swiss Light Source and the Spallation Neutron Source.
  • The Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) promotes basic research in all scientific disciplines, from history to medicine and engineering. It supports over 5,500 projects every year that around 20,000 researchers are involved in.
  • Innosuisse – the Swiss Innovation Agency – supports science-based innovation that serves Switzerland's economy and society, making Swiss SMEs and start-ups more competitive.
  • The federal government also funds the Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences and around 30 research centres outside the universities.

The cantons, for their part, promote research in their capacity as the bodies responsible for Switzerland's universities and universities of applied sciences. Unlike the universities, the universities of applied sciences – with their close ties with the labour market – are tasked with conducting applied research.

The public sector funds research according to free-market principles: grants are awarded in response to the researchers' own, competitive initiatives. The quality of their research proposals is decisive here. Promoting international cooperation is another cornerstone of Switzerland's science and research policy.