International bridges to scientific excellence

Education, research and innovation activities are inherently international in scope: they thrive on continuous advances and global exchange. International cooperation in the area of education, research and innovation (ERI) is therefore of crucial, especially for a small country like Switzerland. In its ERI foreign policy, the Confederation supports Swiss participation in multilateral programmes and institutions as well as in bilateral programmes. It also provides specific funding for research infrastructures abroad.

Karte Leading Houses
SERI renewed the mandates of all five Leading Houses for the 2021-2024 budgetary period. Their mandate is to foster new research cooperation initiatives with regions offering considerable research potential.

Switzerland regularly holds top positions in international rankings on education, research and innovation. In 2020, Switzerland ranked as the world’s most innovative country in the Global Innovation Index. It has held this position for the tenth year in a row. Another example is the impact of Swiss research publications: Switzerland ranks 3rd in international comparison. If one considers Switzerland’s share of the top 10% scientific publications in relation to the number of inhabitants, it once again comes out on top.

International networking of ERI stakeholders
An important basis for such strong results is international cooperation. For a small country like Switzerland, international networking and cooperation in the area of research and innovation is an important factor enabling Switzerland to maintain this top position. As a result, Swiss ERI stakeholders gain access to international research infrastructures and global networks. This in turn allows Switzerland to navigate the space between global cooperation and competition.

Switzerland actively pursues research and innovation at international level. For example, joint publications with foreign researchers account for over 84% of research output and the proportion of foreign PhD students in Switzerland is 57%. Through international cooperation, ERI actors become more creative and improve their research and innovation capacity. Cooperation brings mutual academic, technological and economic benefits to Switzerland and its partner countries and allows solutions to be found for global problems.

Categories of international cooperation in the area of research and innovation

In 2018, the Federal Council adopted Switzerland's International ERI Strategy, which expresses the vision that ‘Switzerland will continue to occupy a leading global position in education, research and innovation’. The steady commitment of internationally active Swiss ERI stakeholders combined with the creation and preservation of the general conditions that encourage research and innovation are key factors that further this objective.

The federal government’s activities in the area of international cooperation in research and innovation can be divided into two categories: multilateral and bilateral.

At multilateral level, the federal government helps to strengthen the European Research and Innovation Area through its involvement in EU research and innovation programmes. And Switzerland also pursues multilateral cooperation through its involvement in various international research organisations.

At bilateral level, the federal government supports the worldwide scientific and technological cooperation activities of Swiss universities and institutions active in research and innovation with foreign partners. This is achieved by establishing and encouraging bilateral partnerships with selected countries and regions.

Various instruments are available for bilateral cooperation:

  • Swissnex, which establishes and maintains an international ERI network through Swiss consular offices;
  • Bilateral programmes run by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) and Leading Houses based at Swiss higher education institutions;
  • Support for specific research institutes abroad;
  • Scientific fact-finding missions to explore new direct contacts between universities and research-funding institutions;
  • Various initiatives to share information and maintain diplomatic ties at ministerial level through fact-finding missions, ministerial meetings and joint scientific bodies. These initiatives help to raise Switzerland’s profile as a location for education, research and innovation and serve as an optimal springboard for bilateral cooperation.

According to the Federal Council Dispatch on the Promotion of Education, Research and Innovation for 2021-2024, these bilateral cooperation instruments will be continued.

Bilateral programmes
Launched as a funding mechanism by the Federal Council in 2008, bilateral programmes are based on the principles of mutual interest, matching funds and scientific excellence. They are intended to foster long-term and sustainable international partnerships.

Bilateral programmes consist of two complementary instruments: first of all, the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) organises joint research projects to support large-scale bilateral research activities with foreign partner agencies in the BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) as well as in Argentina, Japan, South Korea and Vietnam; secondly, SERI issues Leading House mandates to five Swiss higher education institutions. Each Leading House is assigned to a specific region and pursues small-scale bilateral cooperation activities involving start-up funding and innovative pilot projects. The entire Swiss research community is able take part in these activities. Between 2017 and 2020, Swiss Leading Houses provided support for over 500 pilot research and innovation projects and 50 joint research projects with partner countries and regions.

According to an evaluation carried out in 2020, Swiss bilateral programmes bring considerable added value to Swiss researchers and institutions. They play an important role in diversifying bilateral cooperation and greatly increase the volume of new research publications co-authored with partners in BRICS countries as well as in Japan and South Korea. Swiss bilateral programmes also simplify and encourage high-quality research between national research funding agencies. The evaluation also highlights the importance of bilateral programmes for science diplomacy. The exchange of researchers and students, relations with foreign government agencies and ERI actors as well as bilateral memorandums of understanding build trust between Switzerland and its partner countries.

Together with Swissnex, bilateral programmes are the main instrument used to support Swiss ERI stakeholders in the bilateral and non-European spheres.

Institutions in Switzerland and abroad
Another instrument is the targeted support of research initiatives pursued by institutions in Switzerland and abroad. In 2021-2024, the Confederation will support four such institutions or initiatives:

  • The Swiss Institute in Rome, which bolsters Switzerland's international reputation in science and culture and provides young artists and talented scientists with a place to work.
  • Swiss-Liechtenstein Foundation for Archaeological Research Abroad (SLSA), which achieved remarkable results during the 2017-2020 ERI budgetary period, especially with the spectacular discovery of the Eretrean Sanctuary of Artemis Amarysia at Amarynthos by researchers from the Swiss Archaeological School in Greece as well as the excavations in Kerma (Sudan) led by the University of Neuchatel.
  • Swiss Centres of Excellence in Côte d'Ivoire and Tanzania, which are active in the field of tropical medicine.
  • The Global Earthquake Monitoring Foundation.