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Switzerland and Boston look to develop science links

Xavier Comtesse is the driving force behind the Swiss House

The location of Switzerland’s new high-tech consulate in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was not chosen at random: it gives the country’s scientists a prominent foothold in one of the world’s most important academic centres.

The Swiss House for Advanced Research and Education, or SHARE, is the world’s first consulate to be devoted to science and research, a kind of academic embassy. It is a sign that Switzerland is trying to put educational links at the very centre of its diplomacy.

Nearby are Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and there are over 120 higher education establishments in the state.

“The Swiss House highlights Swiss science, technology and culture in one of the world’s most vibrant centers of research and intellectual rigour,” says Charles Kleiber, State Secretary in the Swiss Science Agency.

The consulate also provides facilities to enable scientists in Switzerland to work more closely with their counterparts at Harvard.

“This first interactive house is a real innovation that will benefit both Harvard and Switzerland,” says Claude Bruderlein, head of a new Swiss-funded humanitarian research programme at Harvard. “The Swiss House brings new tools to link up scholars at Harvard and in Switzerland.”

The Swiss House has facilities for workshops, seminars and networking events. It also offers state-of-the-art video conferencing and a virtual Swiss House where ideas can be exchanged over the Internet.

It is all part of the strategy to encourage the transfer of knowledge, ideas and creative solutions between universities and high-tech companies in New England and Switzerland.

“In research it is important to share knowledge,” says Xavier Comtesse, the Swiss consul in Cambridge. “We have good scientists and they have good scientists. It’s a win-win situation,” he adds.

Switzerland is keen to encourage this exchange of knowledge because it is institutions like Harvard and MIT that are driving the boom in high-tech start-ups in the Boston area. It is hoped that the skills that make Massachusetts such a hub for innovation might rub off on the Swiss.

Another important initiative underway at the Swiss House is “Re-Brain”, an attempt to counter the brain drain of Swiss scientists to the US. There are 1,600 Swiss in the Boston area. Many would like to return home but are unable to find well-paid jobs.

The first person to benefit from the scheme, which is funded by the Swiss Gebert-Rüf Foundation, is neuroscientist, Christine Capper. “Some people want to stay here, but some want to go back and it’s really hard for them.

“There aren’t that many jobs, and it’s difficult and expensive to travel back for those that are there. Or the starting date for a new job does not allow you time to finish off research you’ve started in the US,” she told swissinfo.

Another Swiss researcher working in the Boston area is Laurent Monney, a biochemist at Harvard. He says there are far fewer privately funded research centers in his field in Switzerland. Big companies like Roche and Novartis are looking abroad to carry out their research.

“There are many more opportunities here in the US and much more funding,” Monnay told swissinfo.

by Roy Probert

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR