Generations of Swiss schoolchildren have learned that Switzerland has only two raw materials: water and brainpower.
But important as it is, education has never had a ministry of its own. Last week, however, after more than ten years of discussion, responsibility for higher education and research was switched from the interior to the economics ministry, which already looked after professional training.
The move to bring the two closely related areas together under one roof was widely welcomed by members of parliament across the political spectrum.
But there are some dissenting voices in academic circles themselves. The Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences, one of whose tasks is to contribute to the public debate about scientific issues, have written to Interior Minister Didier Burkhalter warning that it is a mistake to believe that research can be a direct driver of economic growth.
Underlying their concern is the fear that business associations, such as the lobby group Economiesuisse, could get “their” ministry to step up pressure on scientists to concentrate on research whose results can be speedily brought to market.
Swiss-American social scientist and economist Isidor Wallimann shares this scepticism.
“The new arrangement is in keeping with a broader desire to make the social sciences and humanities more relevant – in other words, more useful for dealing with problems,” he told swissinfo.ch.
It is true that the reorganisation did not come as a surprise to him. The two federal institutes of technology in Zurich and in Lausanne – the only university-level institutions for which the central government is directly responsible – have long been open to the criticism that their research is too far removed from what the economy actually needs.
Wallimann is particularly concerned with the implications of the reshuffle for his own field.
“There are justifiable fears that the social sciences and humanities will be expected to produce more immediately applicable findings, targeted at solving specific problems,” he said.
He pointed out that freedom of research has been guaranteed by the constitution since 1999 and is a highly valued principle.
In some pure research it takes years to acquire the necessary data, and it is not always clear at the beginning what use it might be put to in the end. But it is still essential to conduct it.
“Sometimes it is only thanks to such fundamental research that we later have a basis to apply in practice,” he explained.
Wallimann, who co-wrote what is so far the only long-term Swiss study on poverty, uses his own experience to prove his point.
“Unless you conduct such major studies you cannot come up with useful findings about issues of poverty in society,” he said.
By calling for research in the areas of the social sciences and humanities to be geared towards immediate application, businesses are not only in danger of biting the hand that feeds them, but also of putting at risk Switzerland’s famous capacity for innovation and its reputation as a research centre.
Research that focuses on problem management always needs a solid foundation of data, as Wallimann knows from his own experience. Without it, it is next to impossible to find a lasting solution.
The switch to the economics ministry could also affect the way in which social and political problem areas are defined. Whoever defines the problems determines the socio-political agenda and thus strengthens their position as a player on the socio-political stage.
Wallimann says that while social integration is recognised as a problem, poverty is not, other than niche aspects like the connection between social integration and access to education. But realistically, issues such as the integration of ethnic and cultural minorities can only be tackled on the basis of broadly based research into poverty.
Social scientists now have to step up their lobbying activities with the politicians and members of scientific bodies that determine the directions science should take and who approve the budgets, he says. They must make it clear that fundamental research needs not simply to be retained but even expanded.
Pure and applied research have to be seen as complementing each other.
“Pure research is the precondition for optimising applied research. The combination guarantees the best results for the money that is spent."
Wallimann, 67, is a Swiss-American dual national.
He is currently visiting professor at the universities of Syracuse (New York) and North Texas.
In Switzerland he has taught at Bern and Fribourg universities and the University of Applied Sciences Northwestern Switzerland in Basel.
He has also taught in Germany and Taiwan.
He was a member of the expert group of the DORE funding programme of the Swiss National Science Foundation which supported practical research carried out at Universities of Applied Sciences and Universities of Teacher Education.
The DORE programme started in 2003 and ended this year.
Restructuring of departments
Under the reorganisation announced on June 29, the offices responsible for research, education and innovation will all come under the economics ministry as of 2013.
Currently the interior ministry is responsible for the two federal institutes of technology, and education and research.
Professional and vocational education, universities of applied sciences and innovation come under the economics ministry.
The Federal Veterinary Office will be transferred from the economics to the interior ministry, bringing responsibility for human and animal health into the same ministry.
In deciding on the reorganisation, the government was following calls from parliament.
However, it did not accept the demand for the creation of a separate security ministry.end of infobox
(Adapted from German by Julia Slater), swissinfo.ch