To those who have

As a science location, Switzerland is a trendsetter – and that is precisely why it could miss important opportunities. The innovative spirit of its researchers and their readiness to take risks will be crucial in Switzerland’s future successes or failures. By Ulf Büntgen

(From "Horizons" no. 114 September 2017)​​​

ETH Zurich is the only university on continental Europe to have been on the same level as the top American and British universities for any number of years. Outstanding research conditions and lavish salaries are complemented by a multitude of attractive location factors. But this can result in a high saturation level that leads to inertia, a decrease in risk-readiness, and a creeping loss of innovation and creativity. Furthermore, Switzerland’s direct democracy can delay decision-making processes, just as its striving for harmony can make it more difficult to develop and defend any individual stance. And if a scientist’s career runs only in straight lines, it can even have a negative impact on their performance.

To be sure, this is complaining at a high comfort level. And we can really only wish for every scientist and scholar to have a secure job. Nevertheless, it is important to recognise areas of irritation, especially in large, less flexible organisations. The Swiss research elite should thus react to even the smallest signals in their customarily sovereign manner. A sustainable educational policy means we have to place a very high value on international collaboration, experience abroad, both interdisciplinary and unconventional projects, a high degree of risk tolerance, innovative capacity, a critical discursive culture and a readiness to leave one’s personal comfort zones. What we especially need is the kind of top performers whose careers are founded precisely on these criteria. In order to compete internationally, researchers would do better to orient themselves according to dynamic development processes instead of taking delight in the status quo. And funding bodies should in future also create the necessary incentives to support inconvenient mavericks and those with a special thirst for knowledge and achievement.

Ulf Büntgen has been a professor of environmental systems analysis at the Department of Geography, University of Cambridge, since January 2017. He is also a Senior Scientist at the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research (WSL), where he was a researcher for 14 years.