National Tasks

The institutions of the ETH Domain perform numerous national tasks on behalf of the Swiss Confederation.

Many of these are either based on requirements set by legislation, or they are activities which the institutions have come to perform throughout the years. Other federal tasks have been integrated into the ETH Domain in the past and these contribute to the fulfilment of international obligations. Some of these tasks are mentioned here by way of example.

The ETH-Bibliothek in Zurich and the EPFL Library are two of the leading technical and scientific documentation centres in Europe. Millions of media reflect a large proportion of the available knowledge. Tens of thousands of customers appreciate the services offered by the two libraries, which are also open to the public.

The ETH-Bibliothek in the main building of ETH Zurich was established in 1855 and is Switzerland’s largest public natural science and technology library. Together with the EPFL Library in the Rolex Learning Center, it is considered to be one of the best libraries in Europe for technical and scientific subjects. Both institutions also have a reputation as innovation drivers. Thus the ETH-Bibliothek launched an e-lending service, for instance, and the registration of DOIs for Swiss universities and research. It pays particular attention to e-publishing and digital data preservation.

The collections held by the libraries at ETH and EPFL cover areas including architecture, construction science, engineering, the natural sciences and mathematics, system-oriented sciences, as well as management and the social sciences.

A service for industry

In addition to its function as the central university library at ETH Zurich, the ETH-Bibliothek has a second purpose: it is a national information centre for the natural sciences and technology, and therefore also collects works about the relevant fields of research and development being pursued in Swiss industry. Regular users include university staff, doctoral candidates, students and industry-based researchers.

Central library network

The ETH-Bibliothek also operates the lending network NEBIS (Network of Libraries and Information Centres in Switzerland). The NEBIS network catalogue lists the inventories of the ETH-Bibliothek and of more than 140 other Swiss libraries, including the EPFL Library, Zurich Central Library and the libraries of the University of Zurich.

Collections and archives

Above and beyond this, ETH Zurich is home to significant collections and archives. When it comes to the strategic orientation and maintenance of the partially valuable inventories, the ETH-Bibliothek plays a leading role. Its activities include extensive digitalisation projects, the establishment of publicly accessible online platforms with digitalised contents, and conservational measures.

Library ETH Zurich to the page
Bibliothèque EPFL to the page

The supercomputing infrastructure at CSCS (Swiss National Supercomputing Centre) in Ticino is sustainably operated as a scientific user laboratory. ETH Zurich is thus continuing to implement the ETH Board’s National Strategic Plan for High-Performance Computing and Networking (HPCN Strategy) at CSCS on behalf of the Swiss Confederation.

High-performance computing (HPC) is a new key technology for both science and business. It complements theory and experiment and allows for new approaches to complex research questions. The ETH Board developed the national HPCN Strategy for Switzerland on behalf of the Confederation in 2007. Subsequent to resolutions adopted by the Federal Council and Parliament, the first two stages (2009–2012, 2013–2016) rested on a sound foundation totalling 172.5m CHF. The HPCN Strategy is now already engaged in its third stage, which lasts from 2017–2020.

Third stage (2017–2020): preparation for the exascale era

At the CSCS and in Switzerland, plans are already being drawn up for the coming exascale era, which is expected by 2020. In the future, exascale computers will be capable of billions by billons of calculations per second. In the third, 2017–2020 stage of the HPCN strategy, it is particularly the development and optimisation of codes that is being advanced in order to ensure that future computer architectures can be exploited better while still remaining energy-efficient. 12m CHF is available for this, with 80m CHF expected for the next hardware generation.

Successful implementation of the first two stages

During the first two stages of the HPCN Strategy the CSCS, under the aegis of ETH Zurich, developed an infrastructure which enables scientists to conduct research with the help of computer simulations at the highest level. Since computing power owing to new technologies, and the supercomputers’ energy efficiency, are continually improving on an exponential scale, existing supercomputer infrastructures had to be continually adapted and retrofitted or replaced. For the CSCS User Lab, this entails annual investment costs of approx. 20m CHF. ETH Zurich invests the same amount in operation costs on an annual basis.

In order to be able to use most cost- and energy-efficient computer architectures at any time, investments were made in the renewal of user codes from the very start. To date, an annual 3m CHF has been earmarked for this, with the same amount being contributed by the groups of researchers involved. To begin with, these projects were conducted within the scope of the Swiss Platform for High-Performance and High-Productivity Computing (HP2C). In the summer of 2013, HP2C was replaced by the Platform for Advanced Scientific Computing (PASC), in which the CSCS closely cooperates with hardware manufacturers, researchers, application software developers, mathematicians and IT experts. HP2C and PASC did not only provide the fertile soil for an annual conference which by now is well-known beyond European borders and registers approx. 400 participants; rather, they also and primarily established a network of cooperation ventures both at home and abroad.

International network

In the wake of the HPCN Strategy, Switzerland and the CSCS also established themselves in the international environment of high-performance computing. Since 2007, the CSCS has been a member of PRACE (Partnership for Advanced Computing in Europe), and since late 2016, it has also been a hosting member with its flagship supercomputer, which at present has a top performance of more than 25 petaflops (as at spring 2017). Membership of PRACE provides Swiss researchers with access to various European systems, and researchers from Europe with access to Piz Daint.

 Swiss National Supercomputing Cetntre CSCS to the page
 Platform for Advanced Scientific Computing (PASC) to the page 
 PASC Conference to the page
 Swiss Platform for High-Performance and High-Productivity Computing HP2C to the page


This Swiss Economic Institute (KOF) was set up in 1938 and is thus one of Switzerland’s oldest economic research institutes. The institute of ETH Zurich conducts research into economic interconnections and is highly respected nationwide for its forecasts and business studies.

How will the Swiss labour market develop over the next 12 months? What impact is an increasingly strong franc having on export business? These questions are typical of those asked at the Swiss Economic Institute (KOF) at ETH Zurich by politicians, associations and companies. The Institute is known throughout the country for its economic barometer, its business surveys and its economic forecasts. It also publishes an annual KOF Index of Globalization, which measures economic, social and political integration worldwide, as well as the KOF Youth Labour Market Index, which examines various aspects of the situation of young people on the labour market.

Politically independent position

The KOF consists of five research departments, three chairs and 64 full-time positions. It is funded by ETH Zurich and the Swiss Economic Research Society (Schweizerische Gesellschaft für Konjunkturforschung, SGK). It is thus grounded in both science and business and is able to take a politically independent stance in debates. Its well-founded, independent research into questions of relevance to society has made the KOF into one of the most respected voices in economic policy and business in Switzerland today. Its opinion is sought beyond the country’s borders.

 Swiss Economic Institute (KOF) to the page


There are few ecosystems in Switzerland which have been as thoroughly studied as the country’s forests. This is due in part to the National Forest Inventory conducted by WSL. It provides an important basis for decisions affecting Swiss forest and environmental policy.

Almost one third of the surface area of Switzerland is wooded. A growing number of interests are colliding on this land. The forests provide a habitat for animals and plants and a recreation area for people, they supply timber and protect against natural hazards, particularly in mountainous regions. Politicians, researchers, ecologists, forest managers and the timber industry all need up-to-date and comprehensive data if they are to use and protect the forests on a sustainable basis. This information is supplied by the National Forest Inventory (NFI), managed jointly by WSL, a research institute in the ETH Domain, and the Forest Division of the Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN). The NFI and other surveys together form a national forest information system.

Systematic sampling throughout Switzerland

The NFI records the state of and changes in Switzerland’s forests. Systematic sampling enables scientists at WSL working with local forestry service providers to record data on trees, growing stocks and trial areas. The published results include information on forest area, the number of trees, growing stocks, increments, use and biodiversity. WSL is responsible for planning, surveying, analysis and scientific interpretation, while FOEN handles the political aspects. The first NFI took place from 1983 to 1985, the second survey followed from 1993 to 1995, and the third inventory was carried out from 2004 to 2006. The continuous survey for the fourth NFI started in 2009 and will run until 2017.

 Swiss National Forest Inventory to the page

The best-known service provided by the WSL Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research SLF is its national avalanche bulletin. This information on the snow and hazard situation is published twice a day in winter, and it prevents accidents which would often have fatal consequences.

Anyone planning a skiing trip to one of the peaks in the Swiss Alps will probably consult the avalanche bulletins published by the Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research (SLF) in Davos. Few other documents published in the ETH Domain are consulted as widely by the public as these very detailed warnings about the state of the snow and the risk of avalanches in the mountains between the Engadin valley and the Alps in Valais.

Innovative products for practical applications

The SLF is an interdisciplinary research and service centre that forms part of the research institute WSL. It has around 130 staff. Its fields of interest are snow, the atmosphere, natural hazards, permafrost and mountain ecosystems. The SLF employees are involved in both fundamental and applied research, the aim of which is to develop innovative instruments for the authorities, industry and the public that can be used, for example, to manage the risk of natural hazards or to analyse climate and environmental change.

Serving the public

The SLF also works closely with research scientists to offer a range of services which include avalanche bulletins, advice, expert opinions on accidents involving avalanches, protection against avalanches and the development of warning systems for natural alpine hazards. In addition, the SLF employees teach in the ETH Domain and at various universities in Switzerland and abroad, and they also train safety specialists. The experts at the SLF pass on their expertise to the general public via the media and other communication channels.

 Avalanche bulletin to the page

On behalf of the Federal Office for the Environment, Empa oversees the National Air Pollution Monitoring Network. The measurements at 16 sites all across Switzerland aid early detection of problematic air pollutants and evaluation of the effectiveness of Swiss environmental policy.

The quality of the air in Switzerland has improved considerably in recent decades as a result of a large number of measures. However, various immission levels are still too high, such as winter smog pollution, the ozone values in summer and excessive nitrogen contamination of forests and ecosystems. On the emissions side, particulate matter and climatically active gases are among the causes for concern.

For environmental protection authorities at all levels, it is therefore important to be able to measure current air pollution precisely and to monitor its development on the medium and long term. The National Air Pollution Monitoring Network (NABEL) was set up for this purpose. The project is jointly run by Empa and the Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN).

16 measuring stations throughout Switzerland

The NABEL measurement network comprises 16 measuring stations distributed all throughout Switzerland. Their locations represent Switzerland’s most commonly occurring pollution situations. This enables a detailed impression of the air quality throughout the entire country to be obtained with a relatively small number of point measurements. For instance, NABEL stations are situated in large cities like Zurich, Basle, Berne and Lausanne VD, along major transport axes like in Härkingen SO and Payerne VD, in mountain towns like Davos GR and on peaks like Rigi SZ. Some of the stations are part of international measurement programmes, namely the European Monitoring and Evaluation Programme (EMEP) and Global Atmosphere Watch (GAW).

Empa is responsible for operating NABEL as a public service. In addition, the programme is an important platform for research projects.

 National Air Pollution Monitoring Network (NABEL) to the page

The Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI) has been developing, constructing and operating complex large-scale research facilities for several decades. The research institute also makes these facilities available to external researchers at universities, research institutes and in industry – for researchers in Switzerland, this is the only opportunity to carry out such experiments in the country.

The PSI, part of the ETH Domain, has large-scale, complex research facilities that allow experiments to be performed in the fields of physics, chemistry, biology, medicine, material science and energy and environmental technology. These facilities include the neutron source SINQ, the Swiss light source SLS and the muon source SµS. They are unique in Switzerland, as they are complicated and expensive to operate. Researchers in a variety of disciplines from universities and other research institutes can obtain decisive findings for their research in experiments using PSI’s large-scale facilities, which often lends them a competitive edge. As a user laboratory, the PSI not only offers access to its facilities but also sets great store by providing highly experienced instrument technicians to professionally assist external scientists by precisely adjusting their complex equipment to suit the user’s needs.

Beam time in high demand

Around 4,560 working visits were made to the PSI in 2010, 1,141 of which by researchers from Switzerland. In total, approximately 1,755 experiments were carried out. The demand for beam time exceeds the actual time available. For this reason, researchers must submit a proposal, with beam time being allocated to only the best proposals. Most Swiss users come from the ETH Zurich and the University of Zurich, closely followed by the EPFL. PSI’s regular guests also include researchers from the universities in Basel, Berne, Fribourg, Geneva, Lausanne and Neuchâtel. The research arm of the Swiss pharmaceutical industry has financed its own measuring stations at the large-scale facilities, so it visits the PSI just as regularly as other Swiss companies, which prefer to remain unnamed for competitive reasons.

 User service PSI to the page

The Ecotox Centre is the centre for applied ecotoxicology in Switzerland. Its goals are to detect and assess the environmental effects of chemicals and to develop strategies for minimizing their risk. With its focus on knowledge management/knowledge and technology transfer the Centre represents an important bridge between research and practice.

The Ecotox Centre shares and transfers expert knowledge and teaches professional skills. It is engaged in practice-oriented education and professional development and provides information to the public.

The Ecotox Centre, with its focus on aquatic ecotoxicology and risk assessment, has its main premises at Eawag in Dübendorf, with a second group, focusing on soil and sediment ecotoxicology, at the EPFL in Lausanne.

  Ecotox Centre To the page

Whenever the earth moves anywhere in the world, the possibility of an earthquake in Switzerland hits the headlines too. And the headlines are accompanied by a comment from the Swiss Seismological Service (SED) at the ETH Zurich. The SED monitors seismic activity throughout the country and formulates preventive measures.

The SED is the federal agency specialising in earthquakes. It monitors seismic activity throughout Switzerland and carries out studies of the country’s earthquake risk. SED’s activities are integrated into the federal package of measures designed to reduce potential damage associated with an earthquake in Switzerland.

Highly sensitive measuring network

The SED monitors seismic activity in Switzerland and neighbouring areas using a digital high-sensitivity system (SDSNet). The seismometers are extremely sensitive and are thus positioned in remote areas on solid rock. All seismic signals are transmitted continuously to the SED data centre in Zurich, where the data is evaluated automatically, and manually if needed, and is then archived. Some 700 gigabytes of data are stored every year.

In addition to the high-sensitivity SDSNet, the Seismological Service also uses a national network of instruments that monitor strong motion. This equipment is capable of recording undistorted signals even during very powerful quakes. The instruments are distributed in Switzerland’s seismically active regions, with special emphasis on high-risk areas such as Valais, Basel and the larger agglomerations. Strong-motion measuring stations have also been installed in the dams of some of Switzerland’s larger reservoirs in collaboration with the Federal Office of Energy and the operators of large hydroelectric power stations.

Services for industry and the public

The SED provides a number of further services for industry and public institutions in relation, for example, to geothermal energy projects and the assessment of seismic risk for the cantonal and communal structure plans. The specialists at The SED are always pleased to answer questions from the public and the media. The SED also pursues its own activities designed to increase awareness of the risk of earthquakes in Switzerland and of the need for preparedness.

 Swiss Seismological Service (SED) to the page

The Swiss Plasma Center (SPC) at the EPFL is an important national and international hub in the development of controlled fusion into a new source of energy.

The SPC is part of the Faculty of Basic Sciences at the EPFL. It employs around 130 people, 110 of them in Lausanne and 20 at PSI in Villigen (Aargau). For years the SPC has had a federal mandate to participate in the European research programme to develop a fusion reactor. This core task is focused on its experimental tokamak facilities (a tokamak is a fusion reactor in which the plasma is confined within a magnetic field inside a torus).

The great potential of nuclear fusion

There are two very different ways of releasing the energy from nuclei. The first is by the fission of heavy atoms such as uranium, which is the concept used by existing nuclear power plants. The second is by combining isotopes of hydrogen (deuterium and tritium) to form helium in a process known as nuclear fusion. The latter imitates processes that take place in the sun and cause it to release energy.

Controlled nuclear fusion could become a major new source of energy in the future, particularly in view of the growing scepticism about nuclear fission. Nuclear fusion has some major advantages over other energy sources. The basic fuels are non-radioactive and abundantly available all over the world. It is not possible for an accident in the reactor with catastrophic consequences to occur. The reactor itself contains only very small amounts of fuel at any one time, and if the fusion reaction gets out of control it stops immediately. Moreover, the problem of radioactive waste is limited and nuclear fusion, like nuclear fission, is CO2 neutral.

Important contributions to sciences and teaching

The SPC has been actively involved in fundamental research and teaching in the wider field of plasma physics since 1961. The fusion technology groups at PSI were attached to the SPC in 1994. In addition to plasma physics teaching and research, the institute’s missions are primarily the development of its expertise and technology transfer.

 Swiss Plasma Center (SPC) to the page

In November 1996, the PSI notched up a world first when a cancer patient was treated with a new radiation technique; the spotscanning technique for proton radiation, in the Center for Proton Therapy. In this technique, a thin proton beam scans tumours inside the body precisely, destroying the tumour cells while protecting the surrounding tissue at the same time. Back then, the methodology developed by PSI researchers represented a breakthrough in radiation therapy and quickly became a successful product. Nowadays, spot-scanning is the standard technique used worldwide in proton therapy. Over the past 25 years, over 2000 cancer patients have been treated routinely and very successfully with it at the Center for Proton Therapy of the PSI.

 Center for Proton Therapy CPT to the page