Chemists get out tubular bells and whistles

Open wide! The chemical and pharmaceutical industry plays a central role in the Swiss economy Keystone

Think of Switzerland and a word beginning with “ch-” and I’ll bet a slice of Emmental you won’t come up with chemistry.

This content was published on February 14, 2011 - 13:26

But in 2011, International Year of Chemistry, Swiss scientists are briefly putting down their Bunsen burners to celebrate their achievements, explain how interesting and important their subject is to Switzerland – and try to attract some future Nobel Prize winners along the way.

If the 20th century belonged to physics – relativity, quantum mechanics, nuclear energy, computers – and the 21st century to biology – genetics, cloning, stem cells – where does chemistry fit in?

“Everywhere,” chemists will reply, casually pointing out that if you take several trillion hydrogen, oxygen and carbon atoms, add a few trace elements and give them a shake, you’ll get a human being.

They will remind you that every aspect of our lives, from what we wear, eat and drink to what we splash on after a shower or take when ill, is the result of countless hours of laboratory experiments.

Or luck. In 1943 Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann was biking home after a hard day’s work at Sandoz (now Novartis) when he started hallucinating – “a not unpleasant intoxicated-like condition”, as he later wrote. It turned out he had absorbed a tiny amount of a substance through his fingertips and had accidentally discovered the psychedelic properties of LSD (see “Father of LSD takes final trip”).

Chemical capital

Hofmann is an exception to the rule that few Swiss chemists make the headlines – unlike their physicist colleagues at Cern, for example. Despite this, Basel has a strong claim to be the chemical capital of the world (see slideshow for history).

Last year Basel-based Novartis and Roche were ranked the second- and third-largest pharmaceutical companies in the world by the Financial Times (see link). Overall they were the 28th and 29th largest companies in the world.

The chemical and pharmaceutical industry has been an important motor of the Swiss economy for decades (see box). It employs more than 65,000 people and its share of gross domestic product is above four per cent and increasing.

With exports in 2009 of SFr71.7 billion ($75.7 billion) and imports of SFr34.9 billion, the chemical and pharmaceutical industry earned a trade surplus of SFr36.8 billion. It thus contributed the largest export surplus of all industrial sectors to the country’s trade balance – nine times higher than that of tourism.


Recruitment drive


The basis for the industry’s economic success is innovation and research.

From Paracelsus, who was born in the village of Einsiedeln in 1493 and who later pioneered the use of chemicals and minerals in medicine, to Kurt Wüthrich, who shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2002, Swiss have been at the chemical cutting edge for centuries.

Six of Paracelsus’s countrymen have won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry (see “Switzerland’s Nobel boom – bust?”) and Swiss organisers of the International Year of Chemistry will hope to convince students of all ages who can tell their arsenic from the rest of the periodic table why they should consider a career in chemistry.

To this end, many events are planned around the country throughout the year (see link). These include boat trips on Lake Zurich in June organised by Zurich University with talks on nanomaterials, the cultural achievements of chemistry and forms of energy of the future.

Safety goggles on!

In this multimedia dossier, presents the highs and lows of the chemical and pharmaceutical industry in Switzerland.

Discover the pros and cons of latest developments such as nanotechnology and “green chemistry”.

Take a closer look at applied chemistry: doping in sport, homeopathy, euthanasia, animal testing, checking for urine in swimming pools and chemistry’s role in global warming – both in the form of pollution and solutions.

Forget boring lessons at school and remember the hands-on joy of dabbling with My First Chemistry Set – although this amateur scientist remembers an ill-advised experiment involving magnesium almost resulting in My Last Chemistry Set...

Above all, get involved!

International Year of Chemistry 2011

The International Year of Chemistry 2011 (IYC 2011) is a worldwide celebration of the achievements of chemistry and its contributions to the well-being of humankind.

It has been organised by Unesco (the United Nations science agency) and the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry.

Under the unifying theme “Chemistry – our life, our future”, IYC 2011 will offer a range of interactive, entertaining, and educational activities for all ages. The Year of Chemistry is intended to reach across the globe, with opportunities for public participation at the local, regional and national level.



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2011 is:

350 years since the publication of Robert Boyle’s “The Sceptical Chymist”, generally acknowledged as marking the birth of modern chemistry.

The 100th anniversary of the Nobel Prize awarded to Marie Curie – an opportunity to celebrate the contributions of women to science.

The 100th anniversary of the founding of the International Association of Chemical Societies – a chance to highlight the benefits of international scientific collaboration.

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Key facts

Europe and the United States each have about 40% of the sales of the Swiss chemical and pharmaceutical industry, while Asia takes in 17%, leaving Switzerland with a very small domestic market.


With a share of over 4% of the world export of chemical and pharmaceutical products, Switzerland is number nine among the biggest export nations.

Expenditures on research by the chemical and pharmaceutical industry in Switzerland in 2008 amounted to SFr5.3 billion, corresponding to 44% of total private research spending in the Swiss industry. Measured as research expenditures per employee the Swiss chemical and pharmaceutical industry is at the top of the sector worldwide.


(Source: Swiss Society of Chemical Industries)

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