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Government says innovation is “stuck in a rut”

Innovative technologies could help a Swiss solar plane fly around the world in 2007. EPFL

Leading representatives of the political, business and scientific worlds say innovation must become Switzerland’s “number one strategic priority”.

The appeal, which came at the annual meeting of the Swiss Science Forum in Bern, was accompanied by calls for reform of the country’s higher education system.

“Innovation in Switzerland is stuck in a rut,” Charles Kleiber, the state secretary for science and research and director of the Swiss Science Agency, told the opening session on Monday.

“This matters because 60 to 70 per cent of economic growth is fuelled by innovation, and 45 per cent of the companies that will be ensuring Switzerland’s prosperity in 15 years’ time do not yet exist.”

Kleiber called for the introduction of what he called a “national innovation strategy”, based on a series of concrete measures including reform and simplification of the Swiss higher education system.

“At the moment, it is so complex that I barely understand it myself,” said Kleiber, who will assume responsibility in January for a new state secretariat for education and research.

Critics of Switzerland’s higher education system regularly complain that the country’s ten universities and two technology institutes each offer too many courses and should focus their activities on certain faculties.

Stuck in a rut

Speaking at the forum, Franz Jaeger, a professor of economic policy at St Gallen University, agreed that it was time to streamline the system, based on the concept of a “University of Switzerland”.

He said this would involve a more rational re-allocation of academic faculties among the various institutions, forming specific “centres of excellence”.

Switzerland’s Union of Students said last year it would oppose any plans to close selected departments.

Krishna Nathan, the director of IBM’s research laboratory in Rüschlikon, stressed the importance of innovation to the future success of the Swiss economy.

He said both the private sector and the government needed to radically rethink their strategic priorities.

“One of the biggest problems we have today is that we think our current policies, because they have worked well for so long, are therefore still the right ones,” said Nathan.

Sustainable development

“Until now, we have focused our efforts on optimising the efficiency and quality of our organisations,” he added.

“However, in future, we will have to optimise our whole society with regard to innovation, which must become our number one strategic priority.”

Swiss adventurer Bertrand Piccard suggested that one way Switzerland could set itself apart internationally was by focusing on sustainable development.

“If Switzerland really wants to profile itself in the front line internationally in scientific terms, it can do this particularly in the area of sustainable development,” he said.

Piccard, the first man to circle the earth non-stop in a hot-air balloon, plans to draw public attention to renewable technologies by repeating the feat in a solar aeroplane in 2007.

swissinfo, Chris Lewis

The second meeting of the Swiss Science Forum was dedicated to the theme of how science can contribute to economic growth.
The forum is organised by communications company, Science Com.
From January 2005, the Swiss Science Agency and the Federal Office for Education and Science will be merged to form a new state secretariat for education and research.

Speakers at the Swiss Science Forum said promoting innovation must become a “national strategic priority”.

They agreed that the commercial application of scientific and technical breakthroughs would continue to be central to economic growth.

They stressed the importance of an integrated approach spanning higher education, politics and business.

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