A short history of Swiss collaborative research


(From "Horizons" no. 111 December 2016)​​​


The Swiss Johann Wäber (who in English called himself 'John Webber') was appointed the official painter of Captain Cook on his third circumnavigation of the world. Cook had organised the first modern scientific voyages of discovery, but also had concrete economic reasons for his journeys. His task was to identify the best trade routes and improve the plantation economy in the southern hemisphere. Wäber bequeathed his ethnographic collection to the city of Bern before his early death. This became the founding act of the Bern Historical Museum.

The West didn't succeed in leaving an immediate mark on every society that it 'discovered'. Science in China was more advanced than in the West, for example, and the West's explorers acquired a lot of knowledge that they then brought back home with them.

This amalgam of local and brought-along knowledge – such as came about in medicine, for example – is today called 'pidgin knowledge'. Here, the hierarchy of knowledge does not necessarily reflect the respective power relationships. Thus the British East India Company could only function because its management was able to rely on the knowledge of many local experts.

It was only in the following century that British rule also became dominant in matters of technology and science. In the history of science, this development is discussed as one of the 'tools of empire'. In other words, Western knowledge was not just responsible for dominating the Third World, but also for its resultant underdevelopment.


The General Swiss Society for all the Natural Sciences was founded (the predecessor of today's Swiss Academy of Sciences, SCNAT). Initially, the Society's scope of action was concentrated on Switzerland itself. But there was a growing fascination for the exotic, including among researchers. The 'superior' position adopted by Western observers was paired with a romanticisation of the primitive as a refuge of innocence. The Celebes expeditions in Indonesia were exemplary in this regard. They were organised in the late 19th century by Fritz and Paul Sarasin, two cousins from Basel who are remembered today primarily as influential natural scientists and ethnologists and as founders of the Swiss national parks. But their expeditions were closely connected to the local colonial overlords and served their interests.

The Protestantism of the new colonial powers and a concomitant shift in the image of slavery brought about the notion of promoting 'development', which emerged out of the self-understanding of the supposedly civilised, progressive Europe when compared to 'underdeveloped' societies. This gradually emerged as a new moral precept, that of 'the white man's burden'. Conquered peoples are no longer simply to be exploited: they have to be 'developed'.


Rudolf Geigy – natural scientist, anthropologist and son of a factory owner – founded the Swiss Tropical Institute, which was initially a methodological and thematic smorgasbord, all subsumed under the concept of 'tropics' – although at that time the term remained vague and undefined.

After the Second World War, Switzerland was in an uncomfortable political situation. 'Neutrality' became an emotive topic in the international context, and Switzerland was accused of having acted opportunistically in wartime. As a reaction against this, it developed a new foreign policy motto: neutrality and solidarity.

In his inaugural address, President Harry Truman offered a science policy manifesto with his 'Point Four Program', marking the beginning of global development aid. "We must embark on a bold new program for making the benefits of our scientific advances and industrial progress available for the improvement and growth of underdeveloped areas. […] For the first time in history, humanity possesses the knowledge and skill to relieve suffering of these people". The motto for this is 'technical assistance'.


Switzerland supported the 'Expanded Program of Technical Assistance' (EPTA) of the United Nations, sending Swiss engineers to work in countries in Asia and Latin America. At the same time, SCNAT established a research station in Adiopodoumé (Cote d'Ivoire), followed five years later by the Swiss Tropical Institute Field Laboratory in Ifakara (Tanzania). The goal was to carry out research on the spot in the Third World with the participation of the local populations. Initially, the approach was paternal, but over time it became more and more of a partnership. Despite this development, institutions of this kind remained confronted with accusations that they were promoting the brain drain from the Third World.

In 1988, SCNAT launched the idea of research partnerships with developing countries. The result was the creation in 1994 of the Commission for Research Partnerships with Developing Countries (KFPE).

Over the second half of the 20th century, a significant ideological shift took place in development aid. Doubts grew about 'exporting progress' for the betterment of the developing countries. Garrett Hardin's essay 'The Tragedy of the Commons' in 1968 played a major role in this change of perception. He claimed that the increase in efficiency brought about by the West necessarily promotes the overexploitation of freely available but limited resources..


Der The National Center of Competence in Research (NCCR) North-South was initiated, also underlining the federal government's emphasis on research partnerships with the Global South. The NCCR brought together researchers from six Swiss research institutions and some 140 partner institutions in Africa, Asia and Latin America in order to work together closely on finding concrete solutions for economic, social and ecological crises.

Private foundations are playing an ever-more crucial role as a driving force and as a source of funding for research into the problems of developing countries. This is especially the case in medicine and nutrition. These foundations have been active for some 50 years now – the Basel Foundation for Developing Countries (today the Novartis Foundation) began its work in 1961, the Nestlé Foundation for the Study of Problems of Nutrition in the World in 1966. But their commitment has now attained 'critical mass' and they are creating controversy of their own, raising questions as to whether the main agenda in science policy is today still being set by governments and international organisations.

Roland Fischer is a science journalist in Bern.