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In 1958, Switzerland sent its first science attaché to the United States. His main task was to observe and report back to Bern on the development and potential use of nuclear technology by the United States. Over the past fifty-five years, the Swiss federal government has added eighteen science counselors and six swissnex science, technology, and innovation outposts to its international network. Today, the Swiss approach to science diplomacy is viewed as a model for small countries.
Contributed by Dr. med. Flavia Schlegel
A full version (including footnotes) of this article was published in “Science & Diplomacy”—A quarterly publication from the AAAS Center for Science Diplomacy—on March 24, 2014.
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In 1958, Switzerland sent its first science attaché, Urs Hochstrasser, to the United States. His main task was to observe and report back to Bern on the development and potential use of nuclear technology by the United States. Over the past fifty-five years, the Swiss federal government has added eighteen science counselors and six swissnex (a public-private partnership to promote cooperation in science, technology, and innovation) and thus created an extensive Swiss science diplomacy network. If, back in 1958, traditional diplomacy was defined by politics, trade, and economics, today new topics such as art, science, technology, and innovation now belong to the diplomatic toolbox. “Soft power,” “public diplomacy,” and “citizen diplomacy” have become common terms. Geopolitical shifts, changes in economic power, and a revolution in communication tools have made the world a far different place than the one in which Hochstrasser lived.
Switzerland’s well-known neutrality and diverse range of high quality goods and services make the country a credible partner, be it as a host of international organizations in Geneva or as a mediator for situations involving complex governance challenges. Many of these challenges are science-related. Science can serve as an efficient tool for dialogue in times of relative distance or disagreement, and it can also offer platforms for new forms of interaction and resolution over topics that are too politically sensitive to talk about. (…)
Swiss policies in general are characterized by stability and continuity. The country’s main objectives for science are to ensure participation of Swiss institutions and researchers in global networks of excellence and international funding schemes. Swiss science profits from high and constant public investment for competitive, peer-reviewed fundamental research mainly at tier-one universities, and the strong role of the private sector (and universities of applied sciences), which covers around 70 percent of R&D expenditures (in total about 2.9 percent of Swiss GDP). This closely knit web of basic and applied research and development is financed by the public (Swiss National Science Foundation, Commission for Technology and Innovation) and the private sector, either separately or jointly. (…)
Switzerland maintains a science diplomacy network for bilateral science, technology, and innovation cooperation in twenty-five locations in nineteen countries. Switzerland has formal representation in the areas of education, research, and innovation, comprising nineteen science counselors working in capitals of hosting countries and six swissnex consular annexes located in global science and innovation hot spots. Each science counselor or swissnex is affiliated with a Swiss embassy or consulate. Within the diplomatic representation they cooperate with trade offices (Switzerland Global Enterprise), Pro Helvetia (the Swiss Arts Council), and other in-country partners. (…)
The twenty-five locations in nineteen countries of the network were chosen for their political, economic, and scientific importance to Switzerland. Traditionally, there is a strong focus on Europe, as the home base of Switzerland’s science enterprise, and on the United States, where there are numerous well established and successful bilateral cooperation initiatives. Over the past decade, Switzerland has systematically broadened its scope and began to include Brazil, China, India, and other emerging and future markets with huge economic and scientific
As a public-private partnership, according to a four-year service agreement, swissnex gets funding from the Swiss government for essential infrastructure and staff. Partners, donors, and sponsors provide vital financial support for any of the activities. Third-party funding should cover two-thirds of the project budget. The same rules apply to science counselors for their own projects. (…)
The significance of a public-private partnership to the running of a swissnex is justified by the fact that the interests and considerations of Swiss industry play a major role in defining the location and the project portfolio of a swissnex. This reflects once again the close cooperation between Swiss science and the private sector at home. (…)
Being a small country, Switzerland invests a lot in the internationalization of its science, technology, and innovation networks in order to stay connected and remain competitive with the best players and infrastructures worldwide.
Science, innovation, and economic growth form a continuum, interdependent with each other and mutually supportive of each other. Switzerland therefore must remain alert and anticipate the importance of emerging technologies and new markets. The Swiss government has to consider and coordinate politics of interior, foreign, economic, and scientific natures to define the goals for the science diplomacy network. As resources are limited, priorities must be set among health, energy, food safety, and other competing issues. Topics of common concern have to be negotiated with the host country to create win-win situations and higher potential for successful cooperation such as SSSTC. Swiss stakeholders need to find synergies among their own economic, political, and scientific interests at home and match them with the demand of potential partners in host countries in a manner that can compete with opportunities from other countries that have more resources at hand. (…)
The Swiss approach to science diplomacy might be considered a model for other small countries with similarly advanced and innovation-driven economies, given the prerequisites, principles, and good or potentially risky practices described above when engaging in science diplomacy. As Heinrich Rohrer, the recipient of the 1986 Nobel Prize in Physics and one of the fathers of nanotechnology, said during a presentation in China in 2010: “Novelty is what others thought to be impossible, did not dare to do, could not do, did not think of, found uninteresting. Never let you [sic] get discouraged.”
Dr. Flavia Schlegel served as the Science Counselor in the Swiss Embassy in Washington, DC, from 2002 to 2004 and as the CEO of swissnex China in Shanghai from 2008 to 2012. As an independent consultant she now engages in health, science and governance.
The opinions and characterizations in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent official positions of the Swiss government. The mid- and long-term positions of Switzerland within the European Research Area are currently under negotiation and might change by the publication date.