Excellent education and state-of-the-art research form the pillars of Switzerland's strong capacity for innovation and are therefore among the most valuable resources. But anyone who wants to survive in the increasingly harder global competition needs to have the world's best minds on their team. For successful scientific work knows no national boundaries.

Yansheng Liu studied biology in Beijing and Shanghai. Proteins constitute his special field of research. He studies the totality of all proteins in an organism, what is known as the proteome. After completing his doctoral thesis, the young scientist had the chance to continue his research at the leading Chinese biology institute in Shanghai. However, in 2010 while attending an international conference in Sydney, he met ETH Zurich Professor Ruedi Aebersold, and he applied for a position in his research group. He was very impressed by the discussion he had with the famous Swiss scientist, relates Yansheng Liu. “His Institute of Molecular Systems Biology is at the forefront in the field of proteomics.” Moreover, he says, the ETH Zurich is one of the best universities in the world.

Yansheng Liu was appointed to the position of post-doctoral research fellow and has been working enthusiastically in the Zurich laboratory for nearly four years now. “There are many highly motivated young scientists in Asia, who are incredibly keen on performing”, says Ruedi Aebersold. "Our research programme is in great demand internationally. Therefore, students and scientists apply from all over the world, wanting to work with us." Although some of the doctoral students on his team are from Switzerland, almost all of the postdocs are from abroad. “Swiss students who have written their doctoral thesis here should definitely go abroad so that they get to know various research cultures, and make contacts”, says the Professor of ETH Zurich. It is important for a later career to have an international visibility. Like the German post-doctoral research fellow Christina Ludwig from the Aebersold Group, for example. “Researchers from various different countries contribute different aspects”, she says. “I am quite sure that we would not be so successful if we were all from the same country.”

Research into the tuberculosis pathogen

Ruedi Aebersold and his team are studying the proteome with the aid of mass spectrometry, which separates out and identifies the molecules according to their mass and charge. For this they are developing new methods of measurement which make the analysis quicker and more efficient. Not only is the team itself international in its composition, the contacts with research groups around the globe are also important. “Our work really starts to get interesting when we find applications for the technology we have developed”, the research head explains. “So we are very interested in cooperating with other researchers, both in Switzerl and and internationally.” Therefore, his team took part in a European project to research into the tuberculosis pathogen. The infective disease TB has become rare in Switzerland, but it still causes some two million deaths in the world each year; many of these are people infected with HIV in Africa. The experts are also concerned about aggressive, antibiotic-resistant strains of bacteria that are spreading out from Russia.

Using samples taken from affected patients in various continents, the researchers in Zurich were able to determine whether the bacteria were of the more aggressive or resistant type – a result that makes it possible to develop new medicines. The EU project, with groups from ten countries, was completed at the end of September 2014. The Zurich team is now continuing its work in the SystemsX.ch network, as part of a project under the leadership of Professor Sebastien Gagneux of the Swiss Tropical and Public Health Institute in Basel. The Swiss research initiative for systems biology, in which about 300 research groups are participating, is being promoted by the Swiss Confederation.

Unique combination

Etienne Caron is impressed by his supervisor's personal network of contacts. The Canadian has been working as a post-doctoral research fellow under Ruedi Aebersold for two years. “My dream is to become an assistant professor and set up my own research group”, the young scientist says. It is really a great help to work in a highly respected group like this, and where the research head is serving on many committees, he says. Etienne Caron works in the field of immunology. Using the methods of mass spectrometry, he identifies antigens that are recognised by the immune system. The aim is to train the body's own defences so that they can actually detect cancer cells – a highly topical issue right now. He acquired his knowledge of biology at the university in Montreal, the Canadian relates. He is now able to combine this with the methodological skills of the Zurich team – a unique combination and one that is causing great interest among the specialists, as shown by the many inquiries coming in from other universities. Ruedi Aebersold spent most of his career doing research in other countries. After his studies at the University of Basel, he was involved in research in the USA for twenty years, and was co-founder of the reputed Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle, before returning to Switzerland in 2004, not least because of the excellent conditions here. “In contrast to the USA, here one can take up long-term research projects”, the Professor of ETH Zurich explains. “In Europe, the universities invest in their infrastructure; people have time to plan and implement the research proposals.” In the USA, though, researchers had to procure all the funding themselves, which then only lasted for a period of three to four years.

Save the planet

The assurance of long-term research funding was also the main reason why Prof. Berend Smit moved to Switzerland from the USA. The Dutchman has been working as Director of the “Centre de l’énergie” at EPFL since July 2014. He had previously been a chemist in the oil group Shell, and was the director of a European laboratory in Lyon, before he went on to work at Berkeley in California as a professor. Again in Berkeley, he was appointed director of one of the Energy Frontier Research Centers at the national Energy Department of the USA. His office in Lausanne is still rather empty, but the internationally renowned scientist is full of energy and bubbles with enthusiasm when he speaks of his ideas: “I want to save the planet”, he says, smiling, when asked about the long-term goals of his work – although he is well aware of the concerns thrown up by the initial situation.

“The indications of global warming are clear and quite alarming, and at the present time it is not possible to replace all the fossil fuels by renewable ones”, says Berend Smit. “But it is possible to separate out the carbon dioxide from the exhaust emissions and store it inside geological formations.” This is in fact his special field. In collaboration with Chinese researchers, he has recently developed a sludge-like material that can efficiently capture CO2 molecules. The specialist in the computer simulation of molecular behaviour is confident that the separation and storage of carbon dioxide is technically feasible, but the process currently requires too much energy and is therefore still too expensive.

The ambitious scientist was the first person of choice for the university when filling the post. “He is an outstanding researcher and teacher”, says EPFL vice-president Prof. Philippe Gillet. His appointment will further strengthen the energy research at the university, he says, because he is one of the world's leading authorities in the field of the separation, fixation and storage of car bon dioxide from mixtures of gases. Berend Smit considers EPFL to be one of the top three institutions in Europe for an academic career, next to ETH Zurich and the Max Planck Institutes in Germany.

Promoting original ideas

Energy research is one field today where it is hard for an individual researcher to make a breakthrough, the chemist Berend Smit says. “It calls for knowledge in various areas, and approaching the problem from various different viewpoints.” As is the case with ETH Zurich, EPFL also attracts top candidates from all over the world, he says and names one example: A young chemist, who had offers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in America and from EPFL, chose the Swiss University. “We interviewed the scientist at Berkeley, too,” relates the professor, “but my colleagues considered herself and her research to be too risky”. I was pleased that the EPFL actually offered her the position precisely for this reason, because she had the courage to propose such an extremely interesting research project. The scientist thinks it is good that a university is willing to support original ideas, and is ready to take a chance. It is only in this way that great advances can be achieved. He is pleased about the new EPFL campus being established in Sion, where in the coming years a young team will devote their full attention to the important task he is working on, namely: to save the planet by developing ways to separate out and store carbon dioxide, and by finding new ways to utilise hydrogen in the energy sector. “This project is extremely appealing”, says Berend Smit enthusiastically, “Because we have the resources needed to become a worldwide leading institute.”

More than half of the teaching faculty at the two Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology come from abroad. “Switzerland does have extraordinarily talented people, but it is a small country”, says Philippe Gillet. In order to maintain the outstanding international position of the ETH Domain, it is crucial that one can recruit the best researchers and teachers – “irrespective of origin and nationality”, he says. It is not only the universities that notice the lack of native new talent in the small country Switzerland, the industry too is in need of more specialists. Berend Smit finds it evident that “The limited influx of highly qualified people is considered by leading economists to be a bottleneck for the future growth of the Swiss economy”. The training of STEM specialists from abroad could help in filling this need.

The international environment: good training for Swiss students

Almost half of the undergraduates and doctoral students come from abroad. The international environment is also advantageous for the Swiss students. They have the chance to move in this environment even while preparing for their Master's degree, and thus get ready for a career in science. “We have very good Swiss students”, says Ruedi Aebersold, “but they often find it difficult to prevail when they are in an international group of ambitious young scientists, because the competition is so extensive and ambitious”. The publication of research results in the specialist journals show how the institutions in the ETH Domain are all among the best in the world. These publications are an expression of the new knowledge gained, and can be used as a gauge of quality. Publications in the British journal Nature and in the American journal Science command great respect. One can say that they have a strong “impact factor”. Articles published in these journals are viewed internationally as a special evidence of performance.

In 2014, an article in Nature published by a team under the direction of the PSI and the Chinese Academy of Sciences CAS in Xi'an led to a great worldwide interest. It revealed how China's record levels of particulate pollution in Winter 2013 came about. The researchers found that the “Airpocalypse” was to a large extent caused by a secondary formation of fine dust or aerosol. Unlike soot, for example, this first forms in the air from gaseous precursor substances such as sulphur dioxide, oxides of nitrogen, and organic compounds from wood-burning fires. “A Chinese postdoctoral research fellow, who was working here at PSI, set up the connection with the group in Xi’an”, says André Prévôt, head of the “Gas Phase and Aerosol Chemistry” group. This allowed the Swiss team to obtain dust filters from China, which it was then able to examine in the laboratory at the PSI using a wide range of measurement and analysis techniques.

Research with a global relevance

The article published in Nature caused a great stir in the media. The air pollution in China affects many people and has a global significance, the atmospheric physicist says. “This is actually a great source of motivation for us researchers and makes the work particularly exciting.” Because the situation in China is more complex than that in Switzerland, they had to develop new methods for aerosol analysis. “Now we will be able to use the same methods here as well”, explains André Prévôt, pointing out the direct benefit for Switzerland.

“International cooperation means that the work can be done more efficiently and quickly”, says Prof. Niklaus Zimmermann, member of the Directorate of WSL. The macroecologist was the co-director of an EU project in which, among other things, scenarios were developed that show how global climate change and change in land use affect biodiversity. “International teams bring together advanced expertise from various areas of specialisation”, says Niklaus Zimmermann. “This often opens up new approaches and innovative methods of analysis, and it simply produces results that have a greater visibility.” The primary benefit to himself personally, is the setting up of a Europe-wide network of contacts in his field of specialisation. “If one is constructive and productive, such networks continue to thrive even without specific projects, and indeed they can lead to long-term friendships”, says Niklaus Zimmermann.

For research areas that are politically relevant, it is particularly important to take a look beyond the national borders. This is what Adriano Joss, process engineer at Eawag, emphasises. He is the co-director of an EU project for organic waste-water purification. The goal of the research project is to achieve a better under-standing of the microbial decomposition of organic contaminants, such as those from antibiotics, painkillers and biocides. Over the coming years, about 100 of the total 700 waste-water treatment plants in Switzerland will be fitted out with an additional purification stage in order to remove microbial contaminants. “For this, the tax-payer provides ten to twenty Swiss francs per year”, says Adriano Joss, “so one automatically then asks how things look in other countries”. There are of course very good scientists in Switzerland, but waste-water research is not an enormous field. Therefore international cooperation is important, he says.

Factories of the future

The economy benefits from the EU projects, too. As one can see from various EU reports, about a third of the research funding from the 7th framework programme (FP7) went to the industry. Professor Frank Nüesch heads the Empa department “Functional Polymers”. He is directing the European EU research project TREASORES, in which a total of 19 partners from Switzerland, Germany, Great Britain, Finland and Spain are participating – universities, institutes of technology and companies. “The goal is to develop a competitive product which will promote advances in the industry in Europe”, says the coordinator. The subject here is organic solar cells and light-emitting diodes that should be available in future at a low price by the square metre.

A dye in the plastic solar cells captures the sunlight. To produce electricity, one needs several layers of organic semiconductors and electrode material, as well as barriers that protect the cells from water and oxygen. If these layers are deposited on a flexible backing fabric, one can manufacture them in a “roll-to-roll” process. The active layers of dye and polymer can be printed out, dried and rolled up again, by the meter on the conveyor belt. Frank Nüesch and his colleagues now want to take the process that already works in the lab, and develop it for large-scale industrial production as part of the EU programme “Factories of the Future”.

Contracts for Swiss Industry

“To realise this goal we need the European cooperation”, says the Empa researcher, who is a pioneer internationally in the field of organic optoelectronics. “We would not find the partners for this project in Switzerland alone.” In future, the inexpensive solar cells and lighting elements are to be produced in Cambridge and Munich. Swiss firms can still benefit from the EU project, as suppliers for the large-scale industries. With help from Empa researchers, a company in Thal that manufactures fabrics for silk-screen printing and filter processes is developing its material so that it can serve as a transparent, conductive carrier material. “An original, cost-effective concept”, concludes the expert, and shows us various samples that are being tested in the laboratory in Dübendorf.

A second Swiss company that is participating in the EU project produces films for foodstuff packaging – again another candidate for a transparent and impervious carrier material. “In fact, by developing the roll-to-roll production process, we are also raising awareness in the Swiss mechanical engineering industry as to how they can construct coating systems”, Frank Nüesch says. “The EU project represents a great gain, not only for Empa.”

The experts are confident that with the research results achieved by the whole ETH Domain, solutions can be found to urgent topical problems. For technological innovation is driven forward by top achievements in research and education. This will lead to economic opportunities for Swiss firms and public institutions, says EPFL vice-president Philippe Gillet. “Switzerland is one of the most innovative countries. The whole society and economy can profit from this dynamic energy.” And our university graduates are the most important players in tomorrow's world.