"Science is a competition"

Marint Vetterli, President of ETHL

Martin Vetterli, president of the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), has concerns about budget cuts for the institution. Read on for our interview.

By Bertrand Beauté

The day of our interview was quite significant, but not in a good way. On Thursday 25 January, Martin Vetterli drank his morning espresso and received a press release from the Swiss Federal Council. Due to a deficit that could reach 2.5 billion Swiss francs starting in 2025, the Confederation announced several budget cuts. One of them was for the EPFs. In 2025, the two schools will receive 100 million less than expected. One more piece of bad news for Swiss research. But the president of EPFL is not going down without a fight. In the hour he spent with Swissquote Magazine in his office, Martin Vetterli passionately defended research, innovation, and education, the fields to which he has dedicated his life.

In recent months, the scientific and academic communities are sounding the alarm. Switzerland could be at risk of losing its excellence. But it is still very highly regarded in international rankings. Is Switzerland truly at risk?

We are very good, that is true. But this excellence in education, research and innovation didn’t just fall from the sky. It is the product of 50 years of investments. This knowledge is not unshakeable. If we want to remain at the top, we need to continue to invest in education, research and innovation, which are essential for the future. I’m not the only one who believes this: industry and economic sectors are saying it as well. 

But the situation is beginning to break down. Before, Switzer land was always among the top countries that receive the most ERC grants – the very prestigious European grants awarded to researchers. Today, we’re no longer even in the ranking, because we’ve been excluded from European research programmes for the past three years. On a national level, the budgets allocated to us are getting smaller. In this context, it will be difficult to maintain Switzerland’s excellence in the years to come.

Science is a competition. Today, we are the leader, but many countries would love to take our place. And they’re investing massive amounts to do just that. To maintain our position, we cannot rest on our laurels. We need to continue to work and to invest. It’s a challenge every day. 

From 2025 to 2028, the Federal Council plans to invest 29.7 billion Swiss francs in research, education and innovation, a 2% increase in nominal value. Is that not enough?

Let’s start by acknowledging the fact that for the first time, the Federal Council submitted its education, research and innovation funding proposal (ERI dispatch 2025‑2028) to a consultation process. That’s a very good thing, because it opened public debate on the subject. To me, this proposal is missing several key elements.

The actual budget increase will only be 1.6% for the EPFs, which includes the two technology institutions ETH Zurich and EPFL as well as four other research establishments (the PSI, the WSL, Empa and Eawag). We’re hit on both sides: the funds allocated by the Confederation are barely an increase, if at all, and expenses are rising. Salaries for our employees, for example, were indexed to inflation, at 2.5%. That’s excellent for them, but it has an impact on our budget. Furthermore, inflation directly affects us: we can see that when we pay our electric bills and when we buy equipment for our laboratories.

We also need to invest to ensure new missions and cover new subjects such as artificial intelligence. But there is no budget for that. The initial proposal from the Federal Council is a 360‑page document in which the words "artificial intelligence" only appear one time. In 2023, such an omission is quite surprising. 

Finally, the number of students at EPFL increases by 4% to 5% per year, which also increases costs. In a way, EPFL is a victim of its own success. In 12 years, the number of undergraduate students has more than doubled, going from 5,283 in 2010 to 10,894 in 2023. In this context, the Federal Council’s financing proposal for the 2025‑2028 period is not ambitious at all. It is a decrease in funds, and that means we will have no choice but to reduce our offerings. 

In this context, are you planning ahead?

Absolutely. In January 2024, for example, we launched a consultation until 18 March in order to limit the number of new students. Starting in 2025 and for a period of four years, the number of undergraduates admitted to EPFL could be limited to 3,000. With this interim measure, we want to return to the situation we had in 2020 and therefore ensure a quality education and the best learning conditions possible. 

Concretely, anyone passing their Swiss A‑levels, whether a Swiss national or not, will continue to have unlimited access to EPFL. However, access for international students with different diplomas will be limited. I do regret this decision, because it shuts us out from many talents and deprives Swiss industry from highly qualified graduates. But we don’t have any other choice. 

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

Before Switzerland was excluded from European programmes, European funds made up approximately 6% of our budget. So the impact is limited, especially given that the Swiss National Science Foundation implemented interim measures to replace the prestigious European Research Council (ERC) grants. But it is worth noting that with the European grants, 50% of the funds allocated to Switzerland were returned back to the EPFs. When Switzerland grants the equivalent funds, only 25% makes it back to the EPFs. The further we get from the decision, it becomes more a matter of expertise rather than politics. The competition is more difficult, but also more transparent, at a European scale rather than limited to just Switzerland. I must say I am a fan of the European ERC grants. The programme is a well‑oiled machine.

"Before, Switzerland led many projects and many networks. Now, it is becoming increasingly isolated"

Beyond the financial aspect, what are the other consequences of Switzerland’s exclusion from the Horizon programme?

We can’t do research alone in a corner. We need to collaborate with other research institutions. Before, Switzerland led many projects and many networks. Now, it is becoming increasingly isolated. Students and professors continue to come to EPFL, but the question of our relationship to Europe for research is always asked during hiring interviews. Human resources at ETHZ is seeing the same thing. Furthermore, several Swiss startups have moved some of their business activities to the European Union in order to maintain access to European funds. 

To compensate for the split from Europe, the Confederation announced in 2021 that it would begin scientific collaborations with other partners such as China and the United States. Can you tell us about that?

That’s not a good idea. Of course we can sign scientific collaboration agreements with India, China, Brazil and the United States. But in the end, Switzerland remains in the centre of Europe and it is much easier to collaborate with our neighbours than to make friends on the other side of the world. 

Last November, Switzerland and the European Commission announced that talks would begin again regarding reintegration into Horizon Europe. How did you take this news? 

It’s wonderful news. Switzerland could potentially rejoin Horizon Europe as early as 2024. But we’re always going to have a sword of Damocles over our heads. The risk is that Switzerland and the European Union may not agree on the other subjects, which have nothing to do with research, education and innovation. In any event, this debate will likely be decided by a popular vote. And that’s great. The Swiss people need to ask the right questions: "who are we?" and "where are we going?" In my opinion, we’re in the centre of Europe and not on an island somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic.