With its six federally financed institutions and the ETH Board as its strategic management and supervisory body, the ETH Domain is a complex, unique and highly successful system. Historian Urs Hafner has charted the history of the ETH Board and shows how it influences the development of Swiss science and how the ETH Domain became what it is today.


Dear reader

Founded in 1855 as a national “incubator” for engineers, ETH Zurich is now a university of world renown. The ETH Board, which set to work at the same time as the “school board” of what was then known as the “Polytechnic”, is much less well known. Over the decades, the university was joined by a number of other institutions: Empa, WSL, Eawag, and later also EPFL and the PSI. Together, these two Federal Institutes of Technology – along with the four research institutes – form today’s ETH Domain. The duties of the ETH Board have evolved accordingly: from being the supreme authority of the “Poly” to becoming the strategic management and supervisory body for six institutions, while also representing them in dealings with policy-makers and the Confederation.

This complex system whereby the six institutions are woven into the ETH Domain has proven very successful. I should like to enlarge on this briefly. Autonomy plays a central role here – and at several levels. On the one hand, the ETH Board handles its business independently within the framework of the law, representing the ETH Domain vis-à-vis policy-makers and the Confederation. And on the other hand, ETH Zurich and EPFL plus the four research institutes are autonomous federal institutions of the Confederation which are subject to public law: they have their own legal personality and manage their own affairs independently. This arm’s length relationship to political bodies is a key element contributing to the success of Swiss science. The ETH Domain and its institutions must be able on their own to define their strategy and the focal areas of their research activities. Only the researchers themselves – fully motivated and given sufficient freedom – will address the topics that truly matter.

This “dual autonomy” is duly reflected in the financing arrangements: parliament approves a funding framework extending over four years, while the Federal Council defines strategic goals for the ETH Domain over the same period. The ETH Board determines how the funds should be distributed among the institutions. It is then up to the two Institutes of Technology and the four research institutes to decide how they deploy their allocation in the areas of teaching, research, knowledge and technology transfer, infrastructure and personnel. 

This highly complex system, which lives by a process of mutual exchange, is per se a characteristic feature of today’s Swiss Confederation. It is a liberal system that allows for a great deal of freedom and is not dictated from above. Just as Swiss democracy needs debate and dialogue, Swiss science too has to contend with repeated challenges. As part of an ongoing dialogue, the various players have to find the right path for science that benefits the nation and society as a whole. Occasionally that leads to minor disputes or even to bigger upsets, but overall it results in an impressive degree of stability. This route of negotiation, discussion and compromise has not only fostered innovation in the ETH Domain but has made Switzerland one of the world’s most innovative countries. With the challenges we are facing – such as digitalisation and climate change – it is vital that we build solid foundations for our future work. This, too, calls for an intensive dialogue between government, the research institutes and the researchers themselves. The ETH Domain is at the service of Switzerland, helping it to build these solid foundations for our country’s future success.

Commissioned by the ETH Board but given a free rein in terms of content, the historian Urs Hafner recounts and comments on the Board’s history and development. For this I am very grateful to him. I wish you an interesting and stimulating read.

Michael O. Hengartner,
President of the ETH Board