Focus topic – research infrastructures

Overcoming scientific barriers together

CERN is the world's largest research centre for particle physics. It deals with the question of the origin and nature of the basic building blocks of matter and the forces holding them together.
Photo: ATLAS particle detector, Photo: CERN

Researchers at universities and research institutions as well as innovative companies give great importance to access to excellent research infrastructures. Rigorous planning and a high degree of coordination are required for national and international research infrastructures, e.g. European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva. In April, the Federal Council took note of SERI's ‘Swiss Roadmap for Research Infrastructures 2019’.

Pushing the limits of our scientific knowledge of the infinitely large, the infinitely small or the infinitely fast requires the development of even more efficient and complex instruments. In many areas of specialisation, research infrastructures are key to finding answers to fundamental questions and examining new issues. These infrastructures also help to improve existing methods and explore new areas. CERN is a prime example of this.

Confirming theories through empirical observation
In 2012, human knowledge took a giant leap forward: the observation of the Higgs boson particle validated the hypothesis explaining the origin of mass in the universe. The importance of this observation has not been disputed and led to a Nobel Prize in Physics in 2013.

The observation of the Higgs boson particle crowned a laborious process involving many steps. Among the theorists who developed models of the universe in the 1960s, some, including Peter Higgs, hypothesised the existence of such a particle and predicted its properties. To develop his idea, all Peter Higgs needed was a comfortable university life, a well-stocked scientific library and opportunities to interact with his colleagues.

This first phase of a discovery is therefore relatively resource-efficient, but it is not enough to formulate hypotheses: only empirical observations can confirm a theory and allow the further development of scientific knowledge. And it is at this stage when needs reach an entirely different order of magnitude.

Building and operating machines to observe the Higgs boson particle required an extraordinary degree of collaboration between the world’s best scientists and engineers. The sheer cost of machines and staff for such an undertaking clearly exceeds the capacities of any single country. A fine diplomatic effort over several decades was needed to coordinate priorities in this area of research at the intergovernmental level. It was also important to base efforts on a stable governance structure that would resist staff turnover and political change. It is therefore no coincidence that CERN, the world's leading intergovernmental organisation for particle physics (now comprising 23 Member States) has provided an appropriate institutional and scientific framework for the infrastructures needed to observe the Higgs boson particle.

Research infrastructures serve a wide range of purposes – a few examples

Research infrastructures as key prerequisites
The discovery of the Higgs boson particle is just one example of many to illustrate the crucial nature of research infrastructures in the development of knowledge. This situation is the same for all scientific fields and in all phases of the development of new knowledge.

In the social sciences or in bioinformatics, for example, data and service infrastructures are based on complex databases with huge amounts of data. Data are structured on the basis of data analyses and are processed or made usable for research. In climate research, for example, locally distributed measurement stations collect data on climate change over extended periods of time and make these available to researchers via coordinated networks.

All of these research infrastructures are now based on sophisticated IT infrastructures that require computing capacity to store and transfer tremendous amounts of data in complex systems. For example, the improved techniques of the many sensors at the world's largest particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider LHC at CERN, generate around 1 petabyte (1,000,000 GB) of data when carrying out experiments; or 6 GB of data per second. This makes selecting, structuring and maintaining such data even more important.

Great potential for fundamental research and innovations
Each research infrastructure is a true ecosystem of knowledge and innovation whose effects on society are visible throughout the value chain. With the increasing complexity of research infrastructures, the areas of use and application are multiplying. There is considerable potential here.

CERN, for example, is mostly known for its research and core knowledge of elementary particles. We also know that the World Wide Web was ‘invented’ at CERN 30 years ago. Thanks to CERN principles, the World Wide Web was open to the public from the very beginning.

What is less well known, however, is that the experiments conducted at CERN also result in innovations, such as new imaging techniques (magnetic resonance imaging) and forms of therapy (proton therapy) in the field of medicine. New knowledge is also emerging in other disciplines, such as geosciences, thanks to findings from fundamental research. The ‘European Plate Observing System’ use infrastructure networks dedicated to the observation of terrestrial plates. Their constantly evolving seismometers contribute to a better understanding of the Earth's physical and chemical processes. This improves the level of protection against flooding or landslides, for example.

Subsidiary role of the Confederation
The commercial benefits potentially resulting from applied research generally whet the appetite of private investors. This is not the case for fundamental research. Here, it is up to the public authorities to provide the necessary resources for development of tomorrow's science, which in turn will pave the way for applied research the day after tomorrow. It is with this in mind that public authorities support the best researchers and fund research infrastructures that enable them to push the limits of scientific knowledge ever further.

In this area, as in many others, Switzerland applies the principle of subsidiarity. As a general rule, research institutions fund and operate the research infrastructure that their researchers need. This also applies as far as possible to participation in international research infrastructures. The Confederation is only authorised to directly take part in organisations (e.g. CERN) where long-term investment and stability can only be provided by states. Accordingly, research infrastructures must be strategically anchored in higher education institutions. A carefully prepared and validated business plan is also required in all cases.
This bottom-up approach helps to create a national research infrastructure landscape that is both balanced and responsive to the needs of researchers.

Coordination and prioritisation
Given the limited financial resources available to the Confederation and to the cantons as the sponsors of universities, it is important to prioritise key research infrastructure projects at an early stage.

The Confederation has a statutory mandate to use its financial resources efficiently and effectively and to promote scientific research and knowledge-based innovation. The decision to build and operate national or international research infrastructures is based on scientific appraisals given by international panels, on technical assessments by research communities and - particularly in the international arena - on research policy priorities within the scope of available financial resources.

While Swiss participation in an international research infrastructure is appreciated and sought by other states, it is not a factor that weights heavily in the decision to create this infrastructure. Indeed, Switzerland's financial contributions generally take into account the extent to which Swiss researchers will use the infrastructure in question and therefore vary from 1% to 5% of the infrastructure budget depending on each case. As a result, Switzerland is able to make multiple but modest contributions to international research infrastructures and thus enable its researchers and companies to benefit from the world’s best scientific instruments in many fields. In this manner, the Confederation achieves one of the objectives of Switzerland's international strategy in the area of education, research and innovation, which stipulates that Swiss ERI actors must have access to infrastructures, programmes and services abroad in order to preserve and improve the quality of their work. These financial contributions also ensure that Swiss companies gain privileged access to the high value-added market in the form of orders for these international infrastructures.

‘Swiss Roadmap for Research infrastructures’ report updated
The responsible agency, SERI, periodically prepares a report for the Federal Council on the status and development of research infrastructures. At the national level, the development priorities for the respective specialised fields as well as for the ETH Domain and higher education institutions are taken into account; developments at international level, in particular in the area of European research funding, are also taken into account.

The current ‘Swiss Roadmap for Research infrastructures’ 2019 was drafted in close cooperation with the ETH Domain and Swiss higher education institutions (cantonal universities and universities of applied sciences). The report provides an overview of ongoing and planned national and international research infrastructures considered a priority for Switzerland. Access to these projects of national importance is given to researchers at all higher education institutions on the basis of specified criteria. The report will be used by the Federal Administration as a planning tool to prepare the upcoming Federal Council Dispatch on the Promotion of Education, Research and Innovation for 2021-2024. New projects can thus be coordinated at an early stage throughout Switzerland and supported on a sustainable basis.

The roadmap itself is not a funding instrument. With the roadmap, higher education institutions and research institutions within the ETH Domain are given the opportunity to position their priority projects both nationally and internationally and to make them visible. It is then left up to these institutions to reach the appropriate funding decisions to enable the development of the newly planned research infrastructures. If necessary, the Confederation will decide whether to contribute to any new international research infrastructure.

Key takeaways

  • Research infrastructures are a vital prerequisite for the further development of scientific disciplines and the opening up of new fields and applications.
  • Research infrastructures usually come with high costs and require extensive planning and operation. Cooperation at national or international level brings advantages to all parties involved.
  • Higher education institutions and their respective sponsors are responsible for the planning, establishment and operation of research infrastructures. The Confederation provides support on a subsidiary basis.