Digitalisation and research competences in Switzerland

Bibliometric studies provide revealing insights

Whether we are ‘digital natives’ or not, digitalisation concerns us all: not only in terms of the effects it has on our daily lives as citizens and consumers, but also in terms of its effects on our economy. This is because many current innovations are based on digital technologies (e.g. software, big data) derived from scientific research. Research capacities in digitalisation are therefore crucial for an innovative economy. So where does Switzerland stand in terms of research on digitalisation?

One way to answer this question is to compare Switzerland's publication output in research fields that are closely related to digitalisation with the publication output of other countries. Although varied, these research fields mainly involve computer and electronic sciences, robotics, artificial intelligence and mathematics (SERI: see further information).

Strong Swiss impact

Switzerland publishes just over 1000 scientific articles per year - mostly originating from the federal institutes of technology - in the six research fields related to digitalisation (see Figure 1). Measured in terms of intensity (does it publish more or fewer publications compared to the world average?) and impact (are its publications often cited or not?), Switzerland's research output and performance is mixed:

  • it has a publication intensity below the world average except for ‘Computer Science & Engineering’. However…
  • its articles are highly regarded by the scientific community (therefore strong impact) in half of the fields observed (‘Engineering Management/General’, ‘Information Technology & Communications Systems’ and ‘Mathematics’).

Given its small size, Switzerland naturally cannot compete with large countries such as the United States or China in terms of publication volume (see Figure 2). However, in terms of impact and intensity, it is as strong as they are.

Figure 1: Switzerland’s performance in scientific publications in research fields relating to digitalisation, period 2007-2011 and 2011-2015


Switzerland's profile is very similar to that of Germany, which is probably due to the proximity of its economy and its research and innovation system. Singapore is also comparable to Switzerland in terms of the number of publications. This Asian country stands out because it has a very high publication intensity and a large international audience.

Lots going on

Switzerland's results have been improving in recent years, as shown by growth in the following fields ‘Computer Science & Engineering’, ‘Engineering Management/General’, ‘Engineering Mathematics’ and ‘Mathematics’ (Figure 1).

These results indicate that Switzerland is not lagging behind internationally in the area of digitalisation. The IMD ranks Switzerland 5th in the world in terms of digital competitiveness (IMD, the World Digital Competitiveness Ranking 2019). Not only are some traditional economic sectors very advanced (e.g. machinery), but there are also many initiatives under way in our country. For example, the Federal Council has requested the EAER (SERI) to establish an interdepartmental working group to propose measures aimed at improving our competitiveness in the area of artificial intelligence. Moreover, the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) has launched a new national research programme ‘Digital Transformation’ to complement the ‘Big Data’ programme. Furthermore, a report on the ‘Action Plan for Education, Research and Innovation for 2019 and 2020’, prompted Swiss higher education institutions to create several professorships in various IT fields (an overview of the various measures can be found in SERI News / Issue 3).

That said, it is important to remain vigilant in areas where the transition from basic research to practical application takes place very quickly (e.g. artificial intelligence) and there is a risk of losing the innovation race. Switzerland must therefore choose its alliances carefully and be present in international projects, both European and non-European.

Figure 2: Performance of other countries in scientific publications in research fields relating to digitalisation, period 2011-2015