"I’m trying to protect the Swiss system"

Created in 1855, the Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETHZ) has become a leading institution. The president, physicist Joël Mesot, plans to defend this enviable position at all costs. We spoke to him to find out more...

By Bertrand Beauté

In what we imagine to be a very busy start to the year, Joël Mesot kindly granted us an hour of his time to answer questions from Swissquote Magazine by video. The time flew by, as the president of the Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETHZ) loved to talk about science, research, education and innovation, while also recognising politics and budget cuts in these difficult times.

In terms of education and research, where does Switzerland fall on a global scale?

In regards to its size, Switzerland largely outperforms other countries. The general level of education is extraordinary and the university system is really very strong. If we look at the QS World University Rankings, the Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETHZ) is ranked year after year in the top 10 best universities in the world (ed. note: 7th in 2024, 9th in 2023 and 8th in 2022). Swiss industry as a whole is also very innovative and we have access to a financing system that allows for the creation of new startups. Finally, we are very open to recruiting international talent. 

This entire ecosystem makes Switzerland a champion of innovation. But this is just the current situation, and there’s no guarantee it will last. Right now, the situation is becoming tenuous on all fronts, which puts our excellence at risk.


"Our budget could fall by nearly 10% in 2025 and that’s a hole we can’t climb out of"


Why is that?

Budget cuts. Education and research rely on support from the Confederation. The government took on debt in recent years for several reasons such as the COVID‑19 pandemic, the influx of Ukrainian refugees, rising energy costs and an increased military budget.

In 2001, the Swiss population voted in favour of the debt brake, which doesn’t allow for the government to end up in a chronic deficit. This mechanism is a good thing, as Switzerland has very little debt and is therefore in an enviable position on that front compared to the rest of the world. But as spending has increased and inflows have decreased, the Confederation is now obligated to look at budget cuts. The cuts primarily affect education, research, and innovation, as this spending is not tied up. At ETHZ, our allowance will decrease 4% in 2025 – the equivalent of 50 million Swiss francs per month. If we add inflation to that, as well as the increased number of students by 4% or 5% each year, our budget could fall by nearly 10% in 2025 compared to 2022. And that’s a hole we can’t climb out of. I understand the situation at the government level, but I am concerned for the impacts on Switzerland’s society. We must not forget that innovation is our main advantage. Without it, our economy would not be as strong as it is.

What savings measures are being taken at ETHZ?

We’re in the process of launching our third round of budget cuts – we have already completed two rounds. Concretely, we’re going to refocus on our priority missions: education, research, and the transfer of technologies. Some side programmes could be cut. For example, in June 2023, we launched the Coalition for Green Energy and Storage with EPFL (ed. note: this collaboration with industry and political partners seeks to develop innovative solutions for renewable energies). 

Today, we need to decide if we can continue that coalition. Furthermore, the professor/student ratio has gotten worse over the past several years. Ten years ago, there were 29 students per 1 professor. Now, there are 37 students per 1 professor. The ongoing budget cuts will absolutely have consequences on the quality of research and education. 

EPFL is thinking of limiting the number of new students to reduce costs. Is that a viable option for ETHZ?

For now, we want to avoid that at all costs. We’re considering alternative solutions instead. For example, we’re looking at potential applications of artificial intelligence in education – we opened a centre on the subject. While remaining a top‑tier university, we’re investigating how AI can be used to help reduce costs. But what concerns me even more than limiting the number of students is the possibility that one day we would have to increase our tuition costs. 

Currently, one year at ETHZ costs 1,500 Swiss francs. It’s very little, but that’s by design in order for everyone to be able to access the university. I would hate for students to have to pay 100,000 Swiss francs someday like at American universities. You know, I was the first in my family to go to university. I would never have been able to study at ETHZ if tuition costs were high. We have a wonderful education system in Switzerland, a social model. I would like to protect it.


"Technological disruption comes from basic research"


Two‑thirds of R&D in Switzerland is financed by companies. Is it really necessary to dedicate so much public funding to research?

ETHZ was founded in 1855 to advance the industrialisation of modern Switzerland. Our DNA is in conducting basic research, and then transferring the technologies from that basic research to industry. That’s our model, which is very successful. In 2023, for example, 43 spin‑offs were created by researchers from our university – a record number that far exceeds our previous record (34 startups in 2019). 

So why do we need public funding for the system to function properly? Industry focuses schematically on applied research, where economic impacts are expected in the short‑ or medium‑term. But basic research is too risky for industry. It takes a long time, which is fundamentally incompatible with the economic cycle of a corporation. The role and the strength of the two ETH universities (Lausanne and Zurich) is to conduct basic research. These universities play a critical role, because often technological disruption comes from basic research. 

Can you give us an example?

I particularly like the story of the MRI. It all started with basic research conducted by American physicist Isaac Rabi in the 1940s, who experimented with the magnetic properties of atomic nuclei. Then more research was done by Felix Bloch, who studied at Federal Institute of Technology Zurich. His research, still purely basic, led him to propose the Bloch equations in 1946, which are the basis of NMR spectroscopy (ed. note: a technique that uses the magnetic properties of certain atomic nuclei) and won him the Nobel prize in 1952. Years later, two other Nobel prize winners from ETHZ (Kurt Wüthrich and Richard Ernst) would continue the work of Felix Bloch, leading to the development of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) which is now commonly used in medicine. So it took 80 years from the first beginnings of fundamental research to reach an application that revolutionised medical diagnostics! 

Here’s another example: Albert Einstein is well‑known today for his work on relativity, but we often forget that he won the Nobel prize in 1921 for his research on the photoelectric effect. This effect is what we now use to power photovoltaic cells, which are incredibly important for the energy transition. As you can see, basic research is absolutely essential, particularly for an advanced society such as Switzerland that has very few other natural resources.

For the past three years, Switzerland has been excluded from the European research programme Horizon. What are the financial consequences of that for ETHZ?

The financial impact isn’t that significant. Following the exclusion, the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) introduced interim measures. Before, we were receiving approximately 100 million Swiss francs per year, via the European ERC grants. Now, we receive a similar amount thanks to SNSF grants. But there’s still a bit of a difference. When you receive a grant, there are additional costs for ETHZ. At that level, the Swiss government gives half of what Europe does, which results in a shortfall of 12 million Swiss francs per year for ETHZ. 

But the biggest problem is that the compensation from SNSF is temporary. What will happen if Switzerland does not partner with the Horizon programme again? How long will the Confederation continue to pay, given its financial difficulties?

Besides the financial aspect, what other impacts did the Horizon exclusion have on Swiss research?

There were many. An ERC grant is much more than just financing, especially for researchers who are at the start of their careers. It’s a prestigious distinction that opens doors and networks and acts as a professional springboard. Furthermore, while our researchers are still able to participate in certain programmes, they can no longer coordinate large European projects.

By being excluded, Switzerland has lost its attractiveness, especially for young talents. 
I don’t know the reasons behind why a researcher may turn down a position at ETHZ, but every time we conduct a recruiting interview, every candidate always asks us about Europe. We have also lost some researchers who have left us for prestigious institutions such as the Max‑Planck Institute in Germany. 

But Horizon Europe is not only focused on basic research. It’s also a programme to support industry and startups. We have some innovative Swiss companies which have moved some of their business activities to Europe in order to continue to receive access to European funding. Even though the immediate consequences may not seem that dramatic, I am concerned about the gradual erosion of our competitiveness.

In some sectors that are deemed sensitive by the European Union, such as quantum, Switzerland is entirely excluded. It can no longer participate in research projects at all...

For quantum, it’s a lose‑lose situation. Everyone loses. Our researchers no longer even receive invitations to conferences on the subject. On one hand, Europe is shooting itself in the foot because Switzerland is one of the best in this sector. But on the other, even if Switzerland rejoins the Horizon programme, we don’t yet know if we will also be reintegrated into the sensitive sectors, of which quantum is one. I think that will be part of the discussions between the European Commission and the Swiss Confederation.

To compensate for the exclusion from Europe, the Confederation announced in 2021 that it wished to begin scientific partnerships with other countries, such as China and the United States. Can you tell us more about that?

We have wonderful partnerships with the United States, the United Kingdom and Asia. But we can’t delude ourselves – any partnership like the one we had with Europe cannot be replaced in just three years. It takes many years. Furthermore, in the Horizon programme, all the parameters – particularly intellectual property rights – are settled in advance. With the United States, this aspect is very complicated. We need to negotiate from scratch for every project, which results in significant costs for the École.

And we can’t forget where Switzerland is located geographically. We’re in the heart of Europe. For certain things, it makes no sense to work with countries on the other side of the world. For example, in the energy sector, we’re not going to solve electric grid stability with China. We need to do that with Europe.

In November 2023, Switzerland and the European Commission announced it would resume negotiations on reintegration to Horizon Europe. How did you take the news? 

We’re quite happy that the discussions are starting up again. The two parties hope to reach an agreement soon. I hope that it will result in a long‑term agreement. Because the worst case scenario for us is if we sign an agreement for just one year and then we’re excluded again a few months or years later. We need stability. 

In the end, surely the Swiss voters will decide...

Yes. If the Federal Council decides to sign an agreement with Europe, we will then move to a popular vote and that’s a good thing. In 2021, when the Federal Council decided to end negotiations, the Swiss people didn’t have a voice in the matter. I hope this time they can be heard. Some people are already positioning themselves very strongly against a possible agreement with the EU. That’s a societal debate we must have: do we wish to continue our model of education, research and innovation that has made Switzerland so successful, or not? When we present the two options, the Swiss population will always side with clear‑sightedness.