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RIO Country Report Switzerland 2015



1. Overview of the R&I system

In terms of the R&I system, Switzerland is characterized by a high level of R&D spending, mostly due to private investments from large companies in the pharmaceutical and mechanical sector, which largely exceeds the EU-28 average and has been remarkably stable in the previous two decades. Per capita R&D spending is nearly four times the EU-28 average. In terms of innovation performance, Switzerland ranks as the most innovative country in Europe in the European Union Innovation Scoreboard. Switzerland performs well above the EU average for all dimensions and for most indicators, in particular in three indicators: International scientific co-publications, Public-private co-publications and License and patent revenues from abroad.

Research policy in a strict sense is currently a task of the central State, while the role of cantons in the direct funding of R&D is very limited. Governance of higher education is shared via a complex division of tasks between cantons and the federal level; the same pertains to innovation support, where applied R&D and support for technological development are mostly managed by the central State, while support for economic development is mostly a cantonal competence (also since fiscal policy is mostly undertaken at the cantonal level).

The Swiss R&I system can be characterized by a clear distinction of functions, structures and funding flows between the public and the private sector, following the traditional liberal orientation of the Swiss economic policy. At the same time, cooperation between the public and the private sector is strong in terms of publications (more than three times the European average), informal transfer and mobility of human resources. The public sector is oriented towards basic research and dominated by higher education institutions (HEIs), some of them being among the top-rated international research universities. Its organization is linked to the federal political organization of the country, where cantons have (almost) exclusive competences on policy domains like schooling, police, justice, and healthcare and raise their own taxes.

2. Recent developments in Research and Innovation policy and systems

Since the late 90s, the Swiss federal government has adopted a national strategy for the R&I system every four years, which is then transmitted to the federal parliament together with the request for budgetary credits for the following four years and, in most cases, also a number of changes of relevant laws and organizational structures. This plan, which is known as the Education, Research and Innovation (ERI) dispatch covers the entire tertiary education domain (both higher education and vocational education and training), direct research funding through projects and programs, cooperation with cantons in general education and international research cooperation. The Swiss R&I policy therefore reaches a high level of integration between policy domains; the only specific R&I measures which are not directly included in the ERI dispatch are direct support for economic innovation and regional economic promotion, which are the responsibility of the State Secretariat for the Economy.

The new strategy for the period 2017-2020 was published in February 2016. Its main directions are continuity with the past, given the fact that the Swiss R&I works quite well, as well as targeted development in a few priority areas (by also taking into account financial constraints): Reform of tertiary vocational education and the improvement of its funding; ad hoc measures for the promotion of scientific careers; specific measures for human medicine to increase the number of trained surgeons; and structuring long-term measures to promote innovation.

3. Public and private funding of R&I and expenditure

Switzerland is characterized by a very high level of R&D spending both in the public and in the private sector. R&D funding from the private sector is traditionally among the highest in OECD countries and stayed quite stable as a percentage of GDP since 2000 (therefore strongly increasing in terms of absolute amounts of spending). Despite an increase in R&D expenditures abroad from multinational companies, there are no signs of a relocation of R&D activities. GERD per capita is almost four times the EU-28 average.

Government R&D funding was traditionally aligned with the EU-28 average in the past, but substantially increased since the year 2000 as an outcome of R&I funding being assigned a higher priority in the State budget; this level is particularly remarkable as almost all public funding is devoted to public-sector research.

Both the shares of funding flows and of performing sectors have been remarkably stable over the last two decades, displaying the high level of stability and continuity of the Swiss R&I system. The increase in funding from abroad is due to two factors: increasing international flows in the private sector and the growing importance of European research programmes.

4. Quality of science base and priorities of the European Research Area

The quality of the Swiss system is excellent. Switzerland accounted for 1.2% of all Web of Science publications in the world in 2009, coming in 18th place worldwide and seventh place in Europe. The share of publications among the top-10% cited was almost 20% and was the highest of all European countries, reaching a similar level as the US. This leading position in international sciences has been quite stable over the last two decades and is particularly strong in sciences and health. Switzerland’s research is also one of highest proportions of international co-publications worldwide, reflecting the high level of internationality of its research system and, particularly, of university academic staff.

There are several reasons for this excellent scientific performance. First, the Swiss research system is well funded, both in the public and in the private sector. Second, public policies for R&D are characterized by stability and long-term planning and by a consistent orientation of funding instruments towards the science base, particularly through the Swiss National Science Foundation. Third, the university system is highly decentralized and universities enjoy a very high level of autonomy in managing their research and maintaining academic standards. Fourth, Switzerland enjoys a very open and deregulated labour market for researchers, which is highly attractive for foreign researchers, and a consistent policy for the training of PhD students and young researchers by universities.

The Swiss R&I system is highly internationalized both in its public and in its private component, largely as an outcome of a traditionally varied and export-oriented economic system. The size of the country and its public R&D system also leads to a traditional policy of strong opening and international collaboration in research: Switzerland therefore participated from the beginning in most international research cooperation initiatives and had a very international labour market both for researchers in both the public and private sector.

5. Framework conditions for R&I and science business cooperation

Switzerland can be considered as one of the most successful business locations worldwide. The Confederation offers an overall favourable investment environment, skilled labour, a competitive infrastructure as well as top-ranked universities and research institutions. Beyond that, taxes are relatively low and prices are stable. The table below shows how Switzerland is ranked by the World Bank in its Doing Business Index. The Swiss legal framework contributes to strengthening Switzerland’s international attractiveness.

In spite of these favourable conditions, the Swiss market also presents some weak points for foreign investors and companies. First, the Swiss market is highly competitive. Second, the Confederation is placed at the epicentre of European and global competition. Third, companies may encounter difficulties facing EU regulations and standards focusing on product quality and packaging. Fourth, in considering the chemical and pharmacological industry, there are specific ad hoc Swiss requirements that have to be met.

In Switzerland SMEs represent 99.6% of the Swiss enterprises and employ 66.6% of the labour force. The policy objectives with regards to SMEs are defined around the following pillars: Competition policy to stimulate competition within Switzerland; foreign economic policy to strive for economic openness and improved access to foreign markets; labour market policy to maintain high employment rates; education policies to strengthen education, research and innovation; finance policy to ensure sound public finances; legislation to create a legal environment that is conducive to entrepreneurship.

6. Conclusions

Switzerland has an excellent R&I system that is one of the best internationally, both in science and in innovation. This system is based on a strong complementarity between public policies oriented towards basic science and training of human resources on the one hand, and a private sector strongly oriented towards economic innovation and characterized by highly R&D intensive sectors and companies (particularly multinational companies in pharmaceutical, chemical and machine industry). The Swiss economy also comprises a large number of innovative SMEs focused on high-tech and strongly export-oriented markets.

The main challenges for the Swiss R&I system are of a systemic nature and depend on how a number of general policy issues will be addressed in the next few years, particularly concerning the relationship with the European Union. The relationship with the EU has always been characterized by a strong ambivalence between the Swiss position in the core of Europe (and a very open country internationally) and the wish to keep the independence of the country and its specificities. Until 2014, the Swiss political system managed to find pragmatic ways to develop relationships with the EU, whose main success was the set of bilateral agreements with the EU signed in 2000. However, the last decade has been characterized by increasing polarization in the political system and mounting success of right-wing parties, who oppose closer relationships with the EU. The (surprising) referendum result of 2014 was largely an outcome of this polarization process and it is not straightforward that pragmatic solutions will be found in the near future.

On the contrary, sectorial policies have been quite successful in addressing emerging challenges for the R&I system. Against the backdrop of high political and financial stability, which has guaranteed increasing resources to the public research system, a number of important reforms have been realised in the last two decades to address some weak points in the Swiss R&I system. Particularly, the creation of the Universities of Applied Sciences, which was highly successful in increasing the provision of skilled labour and reinforcing knowledge transfer towards SMEs. In the public sector, the new higher education act has introduced some coordinating elements in a system whose strength has historically been characterized by a high level of decentralization and regional rooting. In general, the system of strategic plans introduced around 2000 has proven to be effective in achieving a high level of security and predictability of the Swiss R&I policy. The participative approach of Swiss policy, while it might slow down in many cases the reform process, has usually ensured an effective and smooth implementation of policy reforms and measures.

Geo coverage
Report year
Official publication date
Wednesday, 7 September, 2016
Country Report file
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