"The importance of researchers in politics is underestimated"

The Cover Page of the research magazine Horizons. © SNSF

Felix Gutzwiller is a member of the Council of States and an expert in preventive medicine. He talks here about local sensitivities, cosmopolitanism, the importance of science in politics and the significance of pure research. By Mirko Bischofberger

(From "Horizons" no. 104, March 2015)

​Prof. Gutzwiller, do you think more researchers should enter politics?

I think so. In a well-functioning democracy, it’s important that all fields should be
represented in politics. When I look at the composition of parliament today, I have to
admit that there are very few parliamentarians who have research experience. For
several years I was the only member of a university faculty sitting in the Council of

How did you come to be in politics?

As an epidemiologist and a doctor of preventive medicine, one naturally works in relative proximity to political topics. For example, as a scientist I have been very much involved in how to organise our health system, which is a politically important topic. So for me to go from research to politics wasn’t as big a step as it would have been, for example, for someone coming from quantum physics.

How important is science in everyday political life today?

Very important. Politicians are being increasingly confronted with big scientific
issues.I’m thinking here of climate change, energy,nutrition,epidemics and the health
system, to name but a few. So in future, research will be an important topic in politics and a decisive driver of our prosperity. This also opens up space and potential for innovation and progress.And I’m very confident that science will deliver answers – provided that politicians offer the right conditions for it.

Should more researchers enter parliament?

The importance of having researchers active in politics and in parliament is often
underestimated. Just think of agriculture, for example: it is often better represented
in parliament than are the sciences. And that bears fruit. Farmers have been able to
assume a far greater prominence in parliament. That’s why it’s important for scientists to be represented there as well. I’m convinced that there are enough researchers who would be ready to stand up and be counted. But they have to be made aware of it. And I believe that the SNSF could also contribute by challenging the members of its Research Council to become more active in politics.

Why are there so few researchers in politics today?

Research in Switzerland is more international today than it used to be. Roughly half of our scientific élite comes from abroad. That’s very good for our competitiveness, but it also has disadvantages. For example, many researchers know too little about the Swiss political system. And perhaps they often don’t understand that it might ultimately be a Herr Meier from a tiny little town whose vote tips the balance in a referendum. Politics in science, like politics anywhere, has a lot to do with a local understanding of the direct democratic processes in Switzerland. And here, researchers certainly have room for improvement.

Are you thinking of the vote in favour of the mass immigration initiative?

Yes, but not just that. At the time of the gene protection initiative in the 1990s, we
walked up and down the Bahnhofstrasse together with the Swiss Nobel Laureate
Rolf  Zinkernagel, carrying  political  placards. People were impressed by that! It’s
important and credible when people from the world of research make a stand in politics.

What role did research play last year in the mass immigration initiative?

The mass immigration initiative touched an important nerve in the general population that went far beyond matters of research.There’s tension between local and regional issues and our claims to cosmo- politanism. Thus a politically fundamental contradiction has opened up between our access to international knowledge on the one hand, and a purely national need on the other.

What’s the solution?

That’s a difficult question. Our citizens will probably have to get used to the idea that you can’t have both. Affluence in a country low in natural resources such as Switzerland is founded on innovation and research.And these in turn prosper thanks to a certain degree of openness to the outside.To think that Switzerland can flourish with mere local innovation on a national level is completely false in my opinion. It is precisely for this reason that it will be decisive in the coming years whether or not Switzerland is going to be integrated into the European science community. To keep the Swiss research scene purely na- tional would be a huge step backwards for research!

But Switzerland already stands at the forefront of research in the world today, especially with regards to patents and innovation.

Indeed. And it seems to me that young researchers today have more of an entrepreneurial vision than was the case in previous years.There is clearly a greater readiness to ponder how ideas might be utilised for the good of society – in the form of spin-offs, for example. At least in my field that seems to me to be the case. I think that’s extremely positive.

Have you ever branched out on your own?

No, I missed that boat, sadly (laughs). In my field it’s not so easy anyway. I’ve helped to set up lots of things in the non-profit realm, such as in the field of health organisations at the local government level.

Can we see a trend today towards a greater utilitarian thinking in research?

It’s  important  that  the  economic  and science  sectors  work  together. But  naturally, we can’t have science being used merely as an instrument of business. Furthermore, ‘usefulness’ is a concept that goes far beyond mere economics. It should
also be understood as something relevant to the humanities, such as in the field of ethics in civil society or in philosophy.This is often far more important than business products. We mustn’t define ‘usefulness’ too narrowly.

Is the concept understood properly on a political level too?

I think so. And it also seems to be clear in the Federal Department that since early
2013 has been responsible for economic affairs, education and research. So as far as I
can see, there is also a consensus that ‘pure research’ – research that can seem at first
as if it is without a purpose – often becomes the basis for innovation in the economy.
So what is the goal of pure research? (laughs) In one of his plays, Bertolt Brecht puts the following words into the mouth of Galileo: “I take the view that the only goal of science is to ease the arduousness of human existence”. I understand this phrase, in the context of the play, as very much an applied concept that has an ultimate, practical, utilitarian goal. But this doesn’t seem to me to go far enough. Because everything that  is  beautiful, important  and  ethical should be included in our concept of utility. Even the discovery of a planet outside our solar system might perhaps serve to ease the arduousness of human existence just a little.

Mirko Bischofberger is a scientific advisor to the President of the Swiss National Science Foundation.

Felix Gutzwiller

Felix Gutzwiller is a politician and a professor of medicine. From 1988 to 2013 he was the Director of the Institute for Social and Preventive Medicine at the University of Zurich. In 1999 he was elected to the Council of States and is currently the Chairman of the Commission for Science, Education and Culture.