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Swiss to invest more in brain power

More funding for research is essential according to the government.


The Swiss government has announced it intends to boost funding on research and education by more than five per cent annually.

The interior and economics ministers, Ruth Dreifuss and Pascal Couchepin, say they aim to increase research and education budgets by 6.5 per cent per year from 2004 to 2007. Funding was set at SFr14 billion ($8.5 billion) overall for the 2000-2003 period.

The initiative is designed to help Switzerland make up lost ground on other countries that invested heavily in these areas in recent years. During the 1990s, spending dropped 0.7 per cent and represented just seven per cent of the federal budget.

For Dreifuss, the proposed increase will be just enough to keep Swiss research and education competitive.

"This increase is a necessity, because in some areas we just have to consolidate what we have, while in other fields we have dramatic needs for our scientific activities," she told swissinfo.

Forging ahead

"With this increase, we can set priorities, but if we have less, we can only carry on doing what we did in the past. And that is not enough."

Both public and private investment in research and development (R&D) has suffered in recent years. Switzerland had the highest level of private funding of R&D in 1989, but has since slipped down to fifth place in the international rankings.

Public spending for R&D - particularly applied research - has also dropped, while countries such as Finland increased funding by 50 per cent.

The Swiss authorities would like reverse the current trend and promote innovation within Switzerland - even it involves taking risks.

"People are too cautious in Switzerland," said Couchepin. "You have to take risks to innovate."

However both Dreifuss and Couchepin believe the perilous state of federal finances means they face an uphill battle to obtain the 6.5 per cent increase in funding.

Fight over funds

"The difficulty is that public finances are in the red now," said Dreifuss. "The fight over which ministry gets funds will be very tough in the next few months."

Proposing an increase in spending is one thing; spending the money is another. Once any extra cash has been granted, further battles are likely to be fought over where the money should be allocated.

"I think more money should be spent on human resources," said Gilles Borel, a project leader for Switzerland's virtual campus. "We should look at employing more lecturers and researchers, and not just more professors."

Dreifuss also believes reform is needed if they are to win extra funding for education and research. "You cannot just pour funds into this big system," she said. "You have to do more nowadays than in the past with each franc spent."

Effect on universities

Reform will undoubtedly bring major consequences for universities and technical schools in the future. Those responsible for educating future generations will have to decide what kind of graduates they want.

"We have to decide if we want fantastic bachelors, great masters, or just fantastic researchers," Borel told swissinfo. "It depends on what the Swiss population wants, and that makes it a very political question."

Private sector funding is often cited as one possible way of boosting the prospects of higher education. This option, where schools collaborate with companies on specific projects or carry out research mandates, is popular with many policymakers.

However, some academics have voiced concerns that the introduction of commercial backers will lead to a loss of independence. They say there are also practical concerns that are likely to hinder this type of collaboration.

"Things are changing so rapidly now, I don't think the private sector will give enough money to produce high quality researchers," said Borel.

"It takes ten years to get a student to the PhD level, and I don't think companies have that kind of patience to invest in research. So I definitely believe it is the role of the state to finance research and education."

by Scott Capper

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