Review of the structure of the ETH Domain
At the request of the Federal Council and on the recommendation of a panel of international experts, the ETH Board and the institutions of the ETH Domain are reviewing the current structure of the ETH Domain. The overarching aim is to ensure that Switzerland is better equipped for the challenges that lie ahead. Three options for the future are currently being drawn up.
The ETH Domain consists of ETH Zurich and EPFL, as well as the research institutes PSI, Empa, WSL and Eawag. The current structure 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.
Why is the structure of the ETH Domain being reviewed?
Thirty years after the last reorganisation, the question arises as to whether the current structure of the ETH Domain remains optimal or whether it should be realigned once again to meet new needs and requirements. In other words, is the ETH Domain in its present form equipped for the challenges that lie ahead?
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.
“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)
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
- 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.
Milestones 2022 and 2023
The Strategic Plan 2025–2028, published in July 2022, was used as the basis for discussing the future development 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.
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.
Current evaluation by the ETH Board
The ETH Board acknowledges the complementary nature of the different institutions in the ETH Domain. Within their remits, the institutions work effectively and to a high scientific standard, but they are reaching their limits when it comes to developing strategic topics outside their current portfolios, or when coordination and cooperation between the institutions are needed. A new structure should lead to greater flexibility and effectiveness in implementing the strategic objectives – especially for transversal topics such as health, digitalisation, artificial intelligence, climate change and energy.
Current status of the project
At present, a working group consisting of representatives from the directorates of the research institutes and from the Executive Boards of the two Federal Institutes of Technology is developing further options for a possible new structure of the ETH Domain. The following three options are currently at the forefront:
The two Federal Institutes of Technology retain their legal personality. The four research institutes are brought under one “roof” and given a single legal personality. They retain their names and continue to exist in the new organisational structure as institutes without their own legal personality. A new, fifth institute for digital themes is created and is integrated into the organisational structure. The overall institution is managed by a directorate headed by a director (as a permanent post or in rotation). The director coordinates, and takes responsibility for, cooperation.
The two Federal Institutes of Technology retain their legal personality. The four research institutes are brought under one “roof” and given a single legal personality. The basic structure is reorganised along the lines of the ETH Domain’s Strategic Areas. In addition, a new, central research area for digital themes is introduced. The overall institution is headed by a general director and a deputy director. The general director has overall responsibility for the institution.
No, or only minimal, restructuring takes place. Multiple research institutes continue to exist, each with its own legal personality. Eawag and WSL are possibly merged into one environmental institute. Similarly, thematically related activities at PSI and Empa are brought together and allocated to one of the two research institutes. At the same time, the ETH Domain is potentially expanded through the addition of a new research institute focusing on digital themes. Each of the research institutes continues to be managed by its own directorate with a director and a separate budget.
The three options set out above reflect the state of play as of October 2023. They may be further amended as the project progresses. The present sites of the institutions are retained in all three options.
At the ETH Board’s request, the above-mentioned working group is currently working on further elaborating and clarifying the details of the three 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 a decision in favour of a change of structure is 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.
From autumn 2023
- Options being elaborated and details clarified.
- Discussions with stakeholders from politics, industry and society.
- Preliminary decision of the ETH Board,
- internal consultation within the ETH Domain,
- then final decision by the ETH Board.
- If it decides on a change of structure: drafting of the Board’s proposal to the EAER for the attention of the Federal Council.
- If the Federal Council supports the ETH Board’s proposal: legislation drafted by GS-EAER/SERI, consultation with federal offices, consultative process, submission to Parliament and final decision.