Mission-oriented Research and Innovation in Switzerland – A Publication by the Swiss Science Council SSC

Berne, 24.10.2023 - With this report the Swiss Science Council SSC provides the first overview on mission-oriented research and innovation in Switzerland. Over the last years, this theme has gained in importance. Climate change, the Covid-19 pandemic and growing tensions in global politics have led to mission-oriented initiatives such as the European Green Deal and the US Inflation Reduction Act.

Swiss research and innovation policies have traditionally been strongly oriented towards bottom-up processes, which led to many disruptive developments and technologies. The Swiss private sector has repeatedly been able to respond to challenging transformations through its own initiatives, with subsidiary support by the state. However, today the question of a stronger mission-orientation is also increasingly arising for Switzerland. In addition to global challenges, the limited access to the European R&I Framework Programmes plays an important role.

This does not mean that mission-oriented instruments do not exist at all. The report describes how funding bodies such as the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF), Innosuisse and also the Swiss government itself (through departmental research/Ressortforschung) have implemented various funding vehicles that can be used to address predefined topics. However, interviews conducted by the SSC with various experts revealed shortcomings in coordination. This leads to overlaps in project funding and to an inefficient use of resources. The Council thus recommends to improve the agenda setting and coordination of mission-oriented activities by funding agencies, departmental research and other stakeholders. In this context, the role of and commitment towards the interdepartmental coordination committee for federal government research (KoorA-RF) should be strengthened.

Furthermore, the report focuses on a specific instrument which has not been introduced to Switzerland so far: the ARPA approach. This concept, which originated in US defence research, promises ground-breaking and mission-oriented technological development within a short period of time. It is therefore not surprising that various countries have tried to create their own ARPA agencies. Successful implementation, however, depends on finding highly qualified programme managers. They must be willing to leave their positions in industry or academic research for a certain period of time to work for an ARPA programme and they have to be appropriately compensated.

Besides the interviews with experts from Switzerland, the SSC has also had the opportunity of exchange with high-ranking representatives of ARPA bodies. These include the director of ARPA-Energy, Evelyn N. Wang, and the President and CEO of Wellcome Leap, Regina E. Dugan (the latter having been a former DARPA director). Based on these exchanges as well as internal discussions, the SSC recommends to implement an ARPA pilot at the Swiss innovation agency Innosuisse. The scope would be determined in collaboration with the SNSF, departmental research, the ETH domain and universities. Potential customers – e.g., governmental departments with pressing technological needs – should also be involved.

The SSC is convinced that the Swiss success model, which is geared towards excellence and shaped from below, should be maintained. At the same time, the Council is of the opinion that today’s challenges also call for improvements and new emphases for mission-oriented research and innovation in Switzerland.

Swiss Science Council SSC (2023). Mission-oriented Research and Innovation in Switzerland. Analysis and Recommendations by the Swiss Science Council SSC. SSC Report 1/2023.

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