ETH Board, 27 April 2012

The number of students at ETH Zurich and EPFL rose by 6.3% in 2011 to a total of 25,629. New entrants rose by 6.9%, particularly in mathematics, informatics, natural sciences and technics (the “MINT” subjects). ETH Zurich, EPFL, and the four research institutes PSI, WSL, Empa and Eawag are strengthening knowledge and technology transfer (KTT). Industry associations Swissmem and scienceindustries welcome this development, along with the growth in student numbers. They are calling for the ETH Domain to maintain its leading international position, and for greater investment on the part of the Swiss Confederation.

New student numbers rose at both Federal Institutes of Technology in 2011, particularly in engineering sciences (+4.8%), information and communication technology (+5.4%), and pure natural sciences (+14.7%); the proportion of women pursuing Bachelor courses of study rose slightly once again to 29.4%. Revenues from direct federal funds (“primary funding”) rose by 3.6% year-on-year in 2011 to CHF 2.207 billion. The project funds acquired competitively (“secondary funding”) rose by 9.0% to CHF 445.2 million.

Ensuring the continuing high quality of courses remains a challenge for ETH Zurich and EPFL: The professor-to-student ratio, which is closely observed in international rankings, deteriorated further in 2011 (from 1:33.2 in 2002 up to 1:35.8 today), despite the fact that the ETH Domain employed 30 more professors in 2011 than it did the previous year (new total: 749). At the annual media conference of the ETH Board, President Dr Fritz Schiesser commented as follows: “The rise in the number of students in MINT subjects fulfils a long-standing wish on the part of the Swiss economy and Swiss society, particularly as the study programmes at ETH Zurich and EPFL are continually being evaluated and adapted in keeping with learning outcomes and their practical orientation.” The national contribution made by the two Federal Institutes of Technology and the four research institutes of the ETH Domain is evident, for example, in their participation in 83 of the 246 projects approved by the Commission for Technology and Innovation (CTI) as part of measures to combat the strength of the franc. In the area of energy research, on which the ETH Domain spent some CHF 190 million (excluding overheads) in 2011, the range of promising research projects currently underway includes research into the use of biomass, innovations in the function and manufacture of photovoltaic cells, geothermal energy, and the energy efficiency of buildings (e.g. NEST, the new platform for energy-conscious construction at Empa). Teaching remains a key priority for the ETH Board; with a view to maintaining Switzerland’s international competitiveness, the ETH Domain also invests in large-scale research and infrastructure projects such as high-performance computing. Due to the long-term nature of its work, the ETH Board welcomes the proposal from the Committee for Science, Education and Culture (CSEC) of the Council of States for continued growth of federal contributions in the years 2013–2016: “Switzerland holds an outstanding position in the area of education, research and innovation (ERI), but countries such as Germany and China are catching up. The ETH Domain must be in a position to invest if it is to make an even greater contribution to innovation in Switzerland”, urges Schiesser. 

Training, using infrastructures, analysing findings

The way in which the ETH Domain promotes innovation is explained by Dr Adrienne Corboud Fumagalli, Vice-President of Innovation and Technology Transfer at EPFL: According to Fumagalli, the involvement extends from training to shared infrastructures – such as at the Binnig and Rohrer Nanotechnology Center of IBM and ETH Zurich in Rüschlikon (Canton Zurich) – through to the sale of licences and the provision of services and expertise. “Key factors for successful cooperation include commitment to an open campus and sufficient financial resources to bridge over lean phases in the innovation process,” she explains. An example of this kind of bridge financing was the “innogrant” (a grant for entrepreneurial initiative) awarded by EPFL to the initiator of Aleva Neurotherapeutics back in 2008. The company recently raised EUR 9.5 million in the form of venture capital, and today employs eight members of staff in Switzerland at EPFL’s Parc Scientifique. The strength of the links between the ETH Domain and the Swiss economy are revealed by the following figures: In 2011, ETH Zurich concluded some 700 research agreements, of which 219 were with Swiss SMEs. The combined value of these contracts amounted to just under CHF 150 million. EPFL signed 122 agreements for industrial-scientific joint ventures, thereby increasing its direct funding from industry by 16% compared to 2010. Corboud Fumagalli sees the EPFL’s Quartier de l’Innovation as the perfect example of an open campus: Since the end of 2010, this has housed not just start-ups but also major companies, as a result of which more than 1,000 jobs have been created in total. Ultimately, the Quartier de l’Innovation will be in a position to host almost 2,000 people. Many EPFL students are currently on internships or are embarking on their professional careers with these companies. “If Switzerland is to become a national ‘innovation park’ as envisaged by the new Federal Research and Innovation Act, it must build on successful hubs of this kind and integrate the different regions of Switzerland into a single network,” says Corboud Fumagalli.

Swiss mechanical and electrical engineering industries call for investment in training

Swissmem Chairman Hans Hess, who appeared as a guest speaker at the annual media conference, expressed his firm conviction that Switzerland had to remain a centre of research and innovation: In 2011, more than 1/3 of all Swiss goods exports (CHF 68.5 billion) were accounted for by the mechanical and electrical engineering industries, which generated 9.2% of gross domestic product thanks to total sales of CHF 89 billion. In a survey of Swissmem member companies conducted in 2011, 65% of SMEs (i.e. companies with up to 249 staff) and 78% of larger companies reported a lack of qualified specialists at all levels. Hans Hess is therefore calling for more trust in the dual education system, as well as an increase in Swiss student numbers at the two Federal Institutes of Technology: “Too few young people are training to become engineers.” Where the transfer of knowledge from higher education institutions to companies is concerned, Hess believes that both parties have to make an effort: “Large companies have very good access to KTT. Medium-sized companies have favourable conditions, but they do not exploit them sufficiently. And SMEs need to increasingly cultivate contact with universities of applied sciences, which would be attractive partners for them,” argues Hess. Overall, he is calling for consistent growth of investment in education, research and innovation over the years. In addition, the instruments of knowledge and technology transfer need to be better coordinated and more efficient.

Chemical and pharmaceutical industries call for 6% growth in ERI funding

For the Swiss chemical and pharmaceutical industries (as represented by scienceindustries), innovation is the prerequisite for success in the manufacture and marketing of high-value-creating products such as pharmaceuticals, diagnostic equipment, vitamins and nutritional supplements, plant treatment products, and high-quality material treatments. The member companies of scienceindustries directly employ more than 70,000 employees in Switzerland, of which 12,000 work in research. Guest speaker Michael F. Plüss, Vice-Chairman of scienceindustries, emphasises that the member companies of the association account for 44% of all private research expenditure in Switzerland, and are at the same time reliant on the public sector to fund training and basic research to a level of excellence: A cluster effect manifests itself when knowledge and technology transfer functions across the entire network of public and private research. “In research, the rule that ‘people follow jobs’ can become inverted so that ‘jobs follow people’,” says Plüss. The best scientists look for proximity to other outstanding specialists, wherever they may be in the world. Plüss sees a clear lesson to be drawn from this: “If we are not simply to give away the leading global position held by the Swiss science industries and lose our research and innovation status, we need a binding commitment to growth in ERI funding of at least 6%.”