Fit for the future: development of the ETH Domain’s organisation

The ETH Board is currently working on the organisational development of the ETH Domain in order to make it fit for the future and identify its optimal organisation and structure. This should ensure that the ETH Domain is better equipped for the urgent challenges now facing it as well those that lie further ahead. The aim is to create a system in which the outstanding capacities of the ETH Domain’s research institutes can be harnessed to address the big societal challenges of our time, such as climate change, new energy sources, biodiversity, digital transformation and cybersecurity.

Fit for the future – from industrialisation to the digitalisation age

The Polytechnic School that is now ETH Zurich was founded in 1855 for the purpose of training engineers for Switzerland in areas such as road, railway and bridge construction, as well as industrial chemistry. Today we find ourselves in the age of digitalisation, and the dominant themes include artificial intelligence, data science and cybersecurity. They, too, call for teaching and research to ensure that Switzerland is able to meet these challenges in the competitive global environment.

The structure of the ETH Domain has continually evolved over time, and the current organisation has proven effective in many ways. The institutions ETH Zurich, EPFL, PSI, WSL, Empa and Eawag are working well and successfully developing their portfolios within their mandated areas of activity. The different raisons d’être of the two Federal Institutes and four research institutes, which complement each other, enable the ETH Domain to cover a wide range of activities in research, teaching, and knowledge and technology transfer.

They create added value: the ETH Domain as a whole is more than the sum of its individual parts or institutions. With their presence in 13 cantons, the institutions of the ETH Domain – whose names and brands are well known and highly appreciated – also make a decisive contribution to regional development in Switzerland.

New global challenges call for new ways of collaborating

Some areas have considerable room for improvement, however. While the current tasks remain as relevant as ever, new topics and challenges are arising at increasingly shorter intervals. These also need to be addressed, whether under favourable financial circumstances or under the difficult ones currently prevailing. Dealing with the increasingly complex global challenges (such as digitalisation, climate change, energy, health and cybersecurity) calls for interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary approaches. It is necessary to simplify processes in order to make them more efficient.

Cooperation across institutional boundaries involves administrative costs and coordination effort, and the ETH Board has also identified a lack of structural flexibility. It is difficult to integrate new task-focused units or departments for new areas (e.g. digitalisation) if these are not defined in the existing research institutes’ current portfolio of tasks and activities. Another challenge is the strategic coordination of the six institutions’ activity portfolios in order to make the greatest overall impact on society (e.g. coordination of research and development in the area of energy).

Strategy forms the basis for the optimum organisation and structure

The Strategic Plan 2025–2028, published in June 2022, was used as the basis for discussing the organisational development and structure of the ETH Domain. In it, the ETH Board defines five Strategic Areas that it is focusing on in the quest to remain internationally competitive and respond to the most important global challenges. A set of measures were identified in the context of the Domain’s core tasks and key transversal tasks in order to continue achieving excellence in education, research, and knowledge and technology transfer.

Human Health
The institutions of the ETH Domain institutions should build on their expertise and existing competencies in the fields of epidemiology, personalised health, molecular biology, neurosciences, environmental and agricultural sciences, and information sciences.

Energy, Climate and Environmental Sustainability
The ETH Domain aims to address the challenges associated with the energy transition, climate change and the impact of anthropogenic resource and energy consumption on the environment. The ETH Domain institutions intend to focus their efforts along three axes: energy transition; net zero emissions; and biodiversity, climate change, and sustainable construction, mobility and land use.

Responsible Digital Transformation
This Strategic Area seeks to put technological advances linked to digitalisation into a broader context. The development and deployment of state-of-the-art algorithms for machine learning and artificial intelligence are to be expanded, especially in the areas of energy and transportation, the building and infrastructure sector, agriculture, environmental monitoring and health. This will involve data science, software engineering, image processing, computer architecture, computer networking, computer graphics, and cryptography and security.

Advanced Materials and Key Technologies
The ETH Domain aims to spearhead the development of advanced and sustainable materials. Data science, particularly artificial intelligence and machine learning, are of key importance here. They contribute to digital production and advanced manufacturing, and thus to Swiss industry generally. Another key aspect is quantum technology, which promises to revolutionise computing technology and sensor technology.

Engagement and Dialogue with Society
The ETH Domain aims to foster a proactive and open dialogue with society, industry and politics. Such dialogue helps to translate research into concrete solutions and policies, promote science and research, and attract the younger generation into STEM fields.

In addition, basic research is a cornerstone of all institutions of the ETH Domain and an essential element that encompasses all Strategic Areas.

Discussion of the ETH Domain’s strategy led to the launch of the project to review its structure. The ETH Board launched the “Optimal organisation and structure of the ETH Domain” project during its closed meeting in summer 2022, and set up a project group. This consists of the directors of the four research institutes, the presidents of the two Federal Institutes of Technology, and representatives of the ETH Board. In the initial phase of the project, the focus was on gaining an overview and analysing the current situation.

How to best serve Switzerland – now and in the future

The current structure of the ETH Domain has grown up over time and has repeatedly been adapted to changing needs and requirements. The four research institutes emerged from ETH Zurich.

The PSI came into being in 1988 through the merger of the Swiss Federal Institute for Reactor Research and the Swiss Institute for Nuclear Research. Similarly, the Swiss Federal Station for Experimental Forestry (EAFV) and the Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research (SLF) amalgamated to form WSL in 1989. With the ETH Act of 1992, the research institutes as well as the two Federal Institutes of Technology gained their own legal personality. Since then, they have acted as autonomous public-law institutions.

As part of its Strategic Objectives 2021–2024, the Federal Council tasked the ETH Domain with answering this question and reviewing its structure in the light of growing global competition and future scientific and social challenges. This task is based on the recommendations of a panel of international experts who evaluated the ETH Domain as part of the Intermediate Evaluations performed in 2019 and 2023. The Expert Committee proposed that the structure should be developed further and the ETH Domain adapted to future requirements.

Recommendation 10: Structure of the ETH Domain

“The effort initiated by the ETH Board to rethink the structure of the ETH Domain, currently with two large technical universities and four research institutes of varying size, is fully supported. The aim of this effort should be to enable flexibility and agility and to allow the evolution of the Domain in order to address the needs of the future.”

“The Expert Committee was informed on the current structural reflections by the ETH Board and supports the initiated effort. As the actual division in the four current institutes seems mainly historical, the experts propose that the ETH Board develop a long-term vision and strategy on what the future need for specific Research Institutes would be. The ETH Board should also consider how the future Research Institutes, as resulting from the structural reflections, could avoid redundancy and better interact with the other institutions of the ETH Domain.”

(Source: Intermediate Evaluation of the ETH Domain 2019, p. 14)

Findings

The ETH Domain is made up of six institutions of very different sizes: the two Federal Institutes of Technology have a very broad scope of activity and assume a great deal of responsibility for education, while each of the four research institutes focuses on specific scientific topics and has a different mission, namely to conduct applied research projects, to manage research infrastructures of national scope and to offer concrete, high-quality services to researchers, private companies and the public authorities.

With their highly specific expertise and application orientation, the research institutes are particularly valuable in establishing and maintaining links with society at large, especially with federal and cantonal administrations, as well as with start-ups, SMEs, and large private companies. However, their areas of expertise are only partially in line with the challenges that Switzerland is facing today. The themes of the research institutes were defined in the 1960s and, while these topics are still relevant, there are many other challenges that need to be addressed (climate, energy, food, artificial intelligence, to name but a few).

In the opinion of the Expert Committee, the ETH Domain’s ability to respond quickly to the urgent challenges facing Switzerland is hampered by the current organisational setup. This statement does not in any way question the quality of the four research institutes’ activities and their contribution to Switzerland. They constantly undertake collaborations with other academic institutions and with numerous industrial partners; this connectivity must be maintained, and even further intensified in the future.

As already noted by the 2019 Intermediate Evaluation, it is essential – and even more urgent today – that the ETH Board proposes modifications to the organisation of the ETH Domain, in particular, but not only, regarding the research institutes. After considering the current organisation, the experts mrecommend an approach including all institutions of the ETH Domain, as the two Federal Institutes of Technology will also benefit from a revision of their portfolio of activities.

The experts were pleased to learn that a process has already been initiated by the President of the ETH Board, together with the leaders of the six institutions of the ETH Domain. Considering the quality of the leadership, and the clear willingness to work together, the Expert Committee sees a unique opportunity for this process to come to fruition.

The task will be complex, as a new research institute cannot be created for every new scientific challenge that requires increased attention. Rather, it will be essential to identify the specific competences within the institutions and foster collaboration. The structure of the ETH Domain should remain simple enough to ensure optimal governance and effective collaboration amongst its scientists. The optimal organisational structure should be designed by developing a portfolio-based approach including all institutions, and focussing first on the transversal missions, and only then on the structure itself.

While it is not in the remit of the Expert Committee to make concrete proposals about the future structure of the ETH Domain, the experts are convinced that a change will be beneficial for the ETH Domain’s future and have therefore devised boundary conditions to guide the change process.

Recommendation 8: Reform the internal structure of the ETH Domain

  • In order to respond quickly to new challenges, seize the unique opportunity to reform the structure of the ETH Domain. The process initiated by the ETH Board must lead to a solution that goes beyond the status quo and a decision should be taken before the next intermediate evaluation.
 
  • In the definition and implementation of this reform, consider the following
    boundary conditions:
    • It must be driven primarily by clear objectives that add value to the entire ETH Domain and Switzerland, guided by future research challenges and transversal missions, focusing on the structure in a next step.
    • It must include not only the four research institutes, but also the two
      schools to avoid setting up entities that would create unnecessary redundancies.
    • It must result in sufficiently large entities to ensure agility for the entire ETH Domain and adaptability to future needs.
    • It should be designed to deliver high level service to stakeholders of the research institutes.
    • It should lead to a structure that facilitates further collaboration with actors inside and outside the ETH Domain.
    • It should minimize bureaucracy and unnecessary overhead.

 

(Quelle: Zwischenevaluation 2023 des ETH-Bereichs, S. 23-24)

Objectives of a new organisational structure in the ETH Domain

The review of the organisation and structure is intended to ensure that the ETH Domain will also in the future be able to best serve society.  Specifically, the project aims to:

  • Create a new mission-oriented unit/department, including the required infrastructure, to address the topic of “digitalisation”.
  • Improve tools to promote cooperation across and beyond the ETH Domain.
  • Reduce administrative costs and streamline / increase the efficiency of support services.
  • Generate, in complementarity to the two schools, a structure for the research institutes that can more easily integrate existing or support the creation of new mission-oriented units/departments in the future.
  • Improve the ability to strategically coordinate and jointly develop the activity portfolios of the ETH Domain institutions, in order to continue to be at the forefront of scientific and technological developments.
  • Where appropriate, transfer or fuse units/departments to sharpen mission profiles, increase societal impact, improve efficiency and/or reduce redundancy.
  • Increase the physical presence of the research institutes in the Romandie while maintaining the current locations in various Swiss cantons.
  • Further develop the strengths of the current system, including the highly valuable and visible brands of the ETH Domain institutions and the strong links to stakeholders.

Project progress and next steps

At the ETH Board’s request, the above-mentioned working group is currently working on further elaborating and clarifying the details of the possible cooperation and organisation options. At the same time, the ETH Board is holding talks with various stakeholders. In addition to political bodies, these include partner organisations of the research institutes and universities, industry federations, the cantons in which the sites are located, and public authorities. This forms a solid basis for the ETH Board to make a preliminary decision in 2024. Before the ETH Board finally reaches a strategic decision on which option it wishes to propose to the Federal Council for implementation, it will conduct an internal consultation within the ETH Domain. If, in addition to new ways of cooperating, a decision in favour of structural adaptation is also reached, the ETH Board will propose that the Federal Council launches a legislative process to this effect, with the Swiss Parliament having the final word.

Timetable and milestones

From autumn 2023

  • Development and further definition of the options for cooperation
  • Discussions with stakeholders from politics, industry and society

 

2024

  • Internal preliminary consultation within the ETH Domain,
  • Followed by a preliminary decision of the ETH Board

 

2025

  • Consultation on preliminary decision
  • Final decision by the ETH Board
  • Further work on implementation depending on the decision

Contact

For further information, please contact Gian-Andri Casutt, Head of Communications.