Budget cuts threaten Swiss lead in sciences, warns top academic

The head of one of the country's leading educational establishments has issued a stark warning that Switzerland may be in danger of losing its leading position as a centre for scientific excellence.

This content was published on May 4, 2000 minutes

Professor Olaf Kübler says budgetary restraints imposed by the government are threatening the future of Zurich's Federal Institute of Technology and other research centres across the country.

"When you look at the end of the Clinton administration you find that research in the US is getting double digit percentage increases," says Professor Kübler. "Here at the Institute we have been holding level for many years and it looks likely that only in 2004 will we get a slight increase. I believe that is too late."

The struggle for funding is making it increasingly difficult for academic institutions to attract top-notch staff at a time when even the corporate world is finding it hard to find first-class talent.

"What we are observing is that really talented young people, who want to take risks and who want to be successful these days, often don't even consider a traditional career either in the corporate world or the academic world. They'd rather set up their own company."

The result is that the academic world and the corporate world are forging ever-closer ties.

The Federal Institute of Technology now offers support to staff and students who want to put their research to use in the outside world by setting up their own companies.

A member of the Institute can prepare the groundwork for establishing a company while remaining at the Institute. And even when the firm is up and running, he or she can remain under the Institute's protective umbrella by working or studying part-time and using its facilities to support the new venture. Only after two years when the company has taken root does it become fully independent.

In 1999, 16 such spin-offs were established - up from six in 1996.

Professor Kübler acknowledges that the Institute is creating its own competition but he says there is a niche for universities and research institutes.

"It's true that in turbo machinery, jet engines, turbines for electricity generation, General Electric, for instance, has all it needs for long range development. But it's often reluctant to do so because of the way the corporate world is structured today. Also you need hubs where methods and knowledge can be exchanged and this is the place we can fill."

It's clear that establishments like the Federal Institute of Technology are having to redefine their role in the new economic order. This is likely to lead to changes in the syllabus, teaching methodology and perhaps even the language that classes are taught in.

"Switzerland is a small country," says Professor Kübler, "And for a small country that's looking beyond Germany you need to be able to communicate in the world's standard language and today that's English."

by Michael Hollingdale

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