What does ‘Alice in Wonderland’ have to do with research?

 As a research environment, Switzerland is in good shape. But the take-home message from a star-studded conference on the state of Swiss research is that this is absolutely no excuse to rest on our laurels.


At a recent conference in Bern, both academic and business leaders reviewed the health of Switzerland as a research environment. They were present on an invitation from the Swiss Research for Life association, which has been committed to dialogue between scientists and the public since its inception in 1990. The conclusion to be drawn from the well-attended event, entitled “Research in Switzerland—Opportunities and Challenges,” is that Switzerland as a research environment is in good shape today, holding its own against the world’s leading countries when it comes to innovative power. Institutions such as the Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich vie with iconic counterparts such as Harvard; indeed, no country has more Nobel prizes per capita than Switzerland. But it would be fatal to bask complacently in the glow of these successes. Continuous commitment is required by all stakeholders to keep abreast of the constant changes and numerous challenges: Alongside its great strengths, research in Switzerland is also beset by problems such as creeping bureaucratization, shortcomings in the promotion of young talent, resistance to genetic engineering experiments, and delays in the approval of clinical trials and new drugs.

Importance and commitment of the pharmaceutical industry

Thomas Cueni, general secretary of Interpharma, the Association of Swiss Pharmaceutical Research Companies, gave an overview of the achievements of the pharmaceutical industry. He reminded his audience that the industry plays a prominent role in terms of research investment, adding value on a national level by making substantial contributions to the economic and scientific success of Switzerland. It provides some 140,000 jobs (directly and indirectly), accounts for 32 percent of all Swiss exports, and is remarkable for its high level of productivity. In addition, it contributes around 38 percent to the total 12 billion Swiss francs that the private sector spends on R&D. Furthermore, the pharmaceutical industry is involved in the training of staff fresh from school or university, interns, graduate students and postdocs; it also supports talented young researchers as well as start-ups, and funds projects at Swiss universities. In 2010, Basel University Hospital, Basel University and Roche founded the Basel Translational Medicine Hub, a research network in translational and personalized healthcare (translational medicine being the interface between preclinical research and clinical development). “As a research and Pharma environment, Switzerland is in good shape thanks to the powerful twin pillars of business and excellent universities—but top rankings won’t be handed to us on a silver platter,” emphasized Cueni.

Successful teamwork by industry and academia

In an insightful and entertaining speech, Antonio Loprieno, Rector of Basel University and chairman of the Rector Conference, reviewed the research strengths of Swiss universities, which make an important contribution to the country’s innovative powers. One hot topic that came up in lively presentations and debates was the European Commission’s “Horizon 2020” research program. Around 70 billion Euros have been committed to the project with the goal of raising Europe’s competitive edge, and Switzerland hopes to join as an associate country. “Switzerland would have to put a fixed sum into the pot. Content will be decided by competition based solely on research proposal quality,” explained Peter Erni, director of Eurosearch, a federally funded agency that works with universities and technical institutes to facilitate Swiss participation in European research programs. Herbert Reutimann, chief executive at Unitectra—a Basel, Bern and Zurich University body concerned with technology transfer issues and supporting researchers who collaborate with the private sector—outlined the theory and practice of his work. When business and academia come together, binding rules are extremely important in order to safeguard research project confidentiality and invalidate allegations that the profit motive jeopardizes research freedom. Annette Oxenius from the Institute for Microbiology at ETH Zurich posed the provocative question whether the Swiss National Science Foundation is cash cow or guarantor when it comes to ensuring an innovative research environment. Most likely the latter, she concluded, in that it accepts on average every second project application—an extremely fortunate situation, given the success rates of under ten percent at comparable bodies in the United States and Great Britain. Marcel Gyger, chairman of the Swiss Laboratory Animal Science Association, reported on the regulations and restrictions governing animal experimentation, while Beat Keller, director of Zurich University’s Institute of Plant Biology, described the difficulties in conducting field experiments with genetically modified crops.

Running in place

The event was rounded out by a closing podium discussion that revisited several issues in more depth. Moderated by Urs Steiger, Antonio Lo-prieno, Thomas Cueni and Michael Hengartner led a discussion that provided a clear-sighted tour d’horizon of the current research landscape in Switzerland and afforded participants some fascinating and surprising insights. In his closing remarks, Michael Hengartner, chairman of Research for Life and rector-elect of Zurich University, delivered an impassioned plea for all researchers to stand fast by their chosen profession and commit themselves not only to their academic work, but also—and increasingly—to its public relations aspects. He argued that this was necessary now more than ever, despite the positive prospects. As we all know, standing still means going backwards, making it all the more necessary to remember the Red Queen’s remark to the heroine of Alice in Wonderland: “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do to keep in the same place.

Fruitful interaction between different disciplines

Antonio Loprieno, Rector of Basel University: “To perform academically at the highest global level, both the humanities and natural sciences must be in a position to operate autonomously and develop their own cultures. But fruitful interaction between these two disciplines is certainly possible and necessary, especially when it comes to teaching. When it makes sense to be interdisciplinary, we naturally encourage it. But interdisciplinarity is predicated on having competence in your field, not the other way around.”

Tags: Science