The genetic material of Swiss innovation


By Maurice Campagna

(From "Horizons" no. 112 March 2017)​​​

'Deoxyribonucleic acid' is twenty letters describing a discovery as simple as it is complex. Living things write their code in their genetic material with only four nucleobases: adenine (A), thymine (T), guanine (G) and cytosine (C). We all know the abbreviation stemming from this discovery: DNA. Just as we all know how it's depicted geometrically: as a double helix. The origins of the discovery lie in the 1860s, when the Swiss doctor Friedrich Miescher discovered a substance that he found in an extract of pus. He called it 'nuclein'. It was only after innumerable experiments by many researchers that James Watson, Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins were awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1962 for decoding the molecular structure of the nucleic acids and for determining their significance in transmitting information in living things. ATGC – no more and no less.

The model of the double helix might have inspired biochemists to begin describing processes in living creatures, but it also did a lot more besides. Two natural scientists showed not so long ago that the double helix can be used to store data – from books and photos to films and music. Architects use the spiral of the gene as a reference point when designing skyscrapers. And hair stylists braid long hair into pigtails with double plaits.

The secret to innovation and successful entrepreneurship is also founded on four basic elements: decentralisation, openness, continuity and autonomy – DOCA. Switzerland is an ideal place to build on these four basic pillars. Healthy competition between scientists is vital in a small country where the creativity of decentralised locations is part and parcel of the greater, overall network, and if we wish innovation to emerge from the bottom up. In our discussions about participating in European research programmes such as Horizon 2020, we have seen the great value of an open exchange of ideas, both within Switzerland and beyond its borders. And continuity in the overall environment serves to promote the successful progress of research projects. What will we do if the creativity of our researchers is curtailed by the emergence of constricting dependencies? If individual responsibility – autonomy – is lost?

DOCA explains in simple fashion how, through open competition, the philosophy 'think global, act local' can function in a country of different cultures such as Switzerland. Common values, common goals and the simplest possible steering mechanisms for decentralised implementation: this is how we can efficiently apply the resources at our disposal – as long as openness, continuity and autonomy are all guaranteed..

Maurice Campagna is the President of the Swiss Academies of Arts and Science.