Academic autonomy is what makes Swiss excel in research

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The high quality of academic research in Switzerland, recognised at the highest levels of the European Research Commission, is largely due to the open manner in which it is organised, says Patrick Aebischer. 

Patrick Aebischer is the president of the Ecole polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland. A neuroscientist by training, he has encouraged the Lausanne-based institution to embrace the intersection of engineering and the life sciences. 

"Early this year, the European Research Commission designated its two “Flagship projects:” Graphene, based at Chalmers University in Sweden, and the Human Brain Project, directed by EPFL. Two of the four other finalists for this funding, for which teams from 26 European countries competed, were also coordinated in Switzerland: Guardian Angels (co-direction between EPFL and ETH Zurich) and FuturICT (ETH Zurich).

It might seem surprising that a country as small as Switzerland was able to hold its own against so many other teams in the final reckoning. One of the most important reasons for this is the remarkable autonomy of our academic institutions. Teaching and research are not organized centrally in Switzerland, as they are in many other European countries. Cantons fund the country’s universities, and the Federal government provides a large envelope – on the order of 2 billion Swiss francs (€1.6 billion) per year – to its two Polytechniques and affiliated research institutes. These institutions then have the independent responsibility to decide how to manage their budgets.

In addition, a significant amount of the Polytechnics’ budgets – about 30%, (228 million Swiss francs for EPFL in 2012) – comes from competitive grant funding. Obtaining these grants is a major stimulus for researchers and institutions. The Swiss National Science Foundation and the European Research Commission, particularly via its seventh framework programme (FP7), only grant research funding to the most promising projects.

Here again, researchers from Swiss institutions stand out. According to Thomson Reuters, Switzerland has been among the world’s top countries in terms of scientific productivity since 1990. Between 2007 and 2012, scientists from the two polytechniques won no fewer than 133 “ERC grants” from the European Research Commission.

This research success is the result of our academic system’s open approach. The nationality of our professors is never a criterion for hiring; the only thing that matters is their ability. The “tenure-track” system allows us to hire internationally competitive young scientists who then have eight years to prove their scientific mettle and obtain the title of associate or full professor.

Finally, the widespread use of English in our master’s programmes reduces linguistic and cultural barriers, allowing us to welcome students and researchers from around the world. No less than 120 nationalities are present on the EPFL campus! This international outlook also leads to cooperation: the Human Brain Project brings together 85 research institutions from 23 European countries. We also maintain close relationships with institutions in countries on every continent. In Europe, we are in the process of building new ties with several universities in Eastern Europe and Russia.

This policy of autonomy, openness and excellence is what gives rise to the high quality of our research. In addition to our record in obtaining grants – whether they’re exceptional, like the FET Flagship Initiative, or regular, like the ERC Grants –our success can also be measured by our position in the most widely reputed university rankings. EPFL is, for example, first in Europe in Leiden’s Crown Indicator, which is largely based on research impact in the scientific community. We are second in Europe in the Shanghai ranking in engineering, technology and computer science, and fifth among European universities in the Times Higher Education ranking.

While we are justifiably proud of these indicators, they also prove that the choices made – often decades ago – in the organisation of the Swiss academic system were the right ones. A movement in this direction is being observed in some European countries; this is encouraging, for it can only lead to an overall improvement in research quality. Initiatives like the FET Flagship Initiative, created to boost fundamental research, are wholeheartedly welcomed – because it’s from basic research that the great leaps in future technology will come. These programmes enable European science to play a major role opposite the omnipresent American research establishment and the rapid development of Asian universities. But remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day; it will take several years to accomplish this shift."

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