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Politics limits Swiss ability to innovate

Research and development is top of the agenda in many Swiss firms Keystone

A European Union study on innovation, which puts Switzerland ahead of the United States should be taken with a pinch of salt, says a top competition expert.

This content was published on January 17, 2006 - 11:03

The EU Innovation Scoreboard 2005, published last week, ranks Switzerland second behind Sweden and ahead of the US and Japan.

The Scoreboard ranks 33 countries based on the innovativeness of their industries, businesses and science institutes, measuring such factors as the number of science and engineering graduates, patents, spending on research and development (R&D) and technology exports.

Switzerland leads the way in patents and company R&D spending, but falls down when it comes to producing science graduates and exporting hi-tech goods, according to the report.

Professor Stéphane Garelli of IMD in Lausanne says the country's poor record of turning ideas into products is largely down to conservative voters, who tend to scupper attempts to innovate at the ballot box.

"Small countries can only prosper if they are innovative and create added value, but the [Swiss] population does not follow this fact in their conservative voting," he told swissinfo.

Fearful of innovation

"You could see that they were afraid of research-friendly ideas when they rejected genetically modified crops [in a vote last November]. Swiss people seem fearful of innovation."

Garelli says federalism is also a restraining factor because it inhibits cooperation among the cantons and the federal government.

"The [federal] government and cantons each do a little towards developing R&D, but they do not coordinate their efforts enough."

The EU report points out that Switzerland lags behind when it comes to producing science and engineering graduates (63 per cent of the European average).

For Garelli this is not a concern. "Switzerland has a long tradition of relying on foreign skills for fundamental research. Global enterprises attract high-quality graduates worldwide and Switzerland is known as a quiet place with a high standard of living. There is nothing wrong with cross-fertilisation."

Measuring innovation

As to whether innovation can be measured in a meaningful way, Garelli says there is no definitive method.

The EU report itself acknowledges that it uses different criteria to gauge the innovation performance of Japan and the US compared with the other countries.

And it says that direct comparisons cannot be made with the 2004 report, in which Switzerland ranks fifth behind Japan and the US, because the criteria are different.

"If you are judging innovation on a per capita basis then Switzerland is one of the leaders," said Garelli.

"But if you look at real impact, in terms of numbers of patents, R&D personnel and scientific articles being published, then Switzerland falls away."

swissinfo, Matthew Allen

In brief

Switzerland has two Federal Institutes of Technology: one in Zurich (the ETH) and one in Lausanne (the EPFL).

Zurich University has recently been placed as one of the top 10 universities for research in Europe, by the League of European Research Universities.

The country's top business school is the International Institute for Management Development (IMD) in Lausanne.

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Key facts

Switzerland ranks second behind Sweden in the EU Innovation Scoreboard 2005.
Switzerland tops the tables in patent filings and R&D spending, but has trouble turning research into products, and produces fewer science and engineering graduates than the European average.
Switzerland is to hold its first "Innovation Forum" on January 27 to promote innovation in the country and gauge how well it is doing compared to other countries.

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