ETH research supply support to the Swiss state

From devising forecasting models for the Federal Finance Administration and describing the latest trends in civil protection, ETH researchers routinely supply vital support to the Swiss state and help drive innovation.
Researchers are working with the Federal Administration to examine the role of new technologies in disaster relief. This diving robot was developed by ETH spin-off Tethys Robotics for use in search-and-rescue missions. (Photograph: Tethys Robotics)

Researchers from ETH Zurich routinely supply Switzerland’s government and public administration with expert input. Their know-how helps the public sector to craft new responses to the challenges facing society. In regular contributions to commissioned studies, hearings and consultations, ETH researchers present data, outline new trends, model scenarios, explain correlations and warn of emerging threats to the social fabric. And since the government generally lacks the time to get up to speed with new methodologies and the latest technology, ETH's contribution also helps drive innov­ation in the public sector.

At the same time, ETH offers a wide range of continuing education programmes that help maintain a continuous flow of knowledge into this sphere. Each year, these courses – over 85 in total – attract a steady stream of employees from public administration, allowing them to keep abreast of the latest advances in fields ranging from artificial intelligence to digital healthcare. This article examines how ETH researchers are assisting the Swiss state and driving innovation in civil protection, financial planning, energy provision and cybersecurity.

New trends in civil protection

In Switzerland, it is the responsibility of the cantons to protect the population in the event of an emergency – be that a power cut, mobile phone outage or even the next pandemic. Support and coordination at the national level is provided by the Federal Office for Civil Protection (FOCP). Its responsibilities include the development of a civil protection strategy capable of addressing emerging threats and exploiting new opportunities. The Center for Security Studies (CSS) at ETH Zurich has been lending its support in this area since 2015. “Our trend analyses give the FOCP advanced warning of critical developments,” says Andrin Hauri from the CSS.

The CSS report focuses on 12 key trends that are likely to have a major impact on Swiss civil protection over the next 5 to 10 years. In addition to well-known issues such as the growing urgency of climate change mitigation and increasing geopolitical polarisation, the authors also describe two technological changes that are destined to play an increasingly important role in civil protection.

For a start, they discuss the growing impact of unmanned robotic vehicles. Researchers are already working with the public sector on the use of this technology in disaster relief, as part of the Advanced Robotic Capabilities for Hazardous Environments (ARCHE) project. ETH developments in this area include Tethys, a diving robot, Anymal, a four-legged robot, and Gravis, an unmanned excavator. The report also highlights how satellites are offering new ways to monitor the environment and to provide advance warning of natural disasters. For example, ETH researchers recently demonstrated how GPS data can be used to improve the forecasting of extreme weather events such as thunderstorms with heavy rainfall.

Forecasts for the federal budget

How much money is in the federal coffers at any one time? This is a question that routinely preoccupies Switzerland’s Federal Finance Administration (FFA), the body responsible for compiling budgetary stat­istics and generating forecasts of future income and expenditure. To better anticipate how budgetary constraints might shift over the course of the year, the FFA has teamed up with the KOF Swiss Economic Institute at ETH Zurich. Over the past two years, ETH researchers have created a forecasting model that provides a sound statistical basis for planning the federal government’s finances and have helped get the new system up and running.

The FFA receives a steady stream of data on the Swiss economy, including figures on gross domestic product, unemployment, inflation, exchange rates, tax revenue and public expenditure. Using the new model, it can produce federal budget forecasts more quickly and more accurately. At the same time, the model makes it easier to handle volatile variables and calculate different budget scenarios. “It gives the FFA a more powerful tool to analyse how income and expenditure are affected by factors such as lower growth,” explains KOF project lead Samad Sarferaz. “That makes the state more agile when predicting how public finances will develop and determining what scope they have within the framework of the debt brake mechanism.”

E-cars for greater grid flexibility

Switzerland aims to replace fossil fuels such as gas and oil with electricity from solar and wind power by 2050 at the latest. In addition to replacing fossil fuel heating with electric heat pumps, another key element of this strategy will be the switch from petrol and diesel to electric cars. By 2025 – according to the government target – half of all cars newly registered in Switzerland will be powered by battery. In 2023, this proportion was around 20 percent. Given that all these new e-cars will need recharging on a regular basis, this will require not only the appropriate infrastructure but also the provision of more power.

To investigate what this will mean for the country’s electricity system, the ETH Energy Science Center (ESC) is currently running a project as part of a consortium commissioned by the Swiss Federal Office of Energy (SFOE). ESC researchers point out that all these electric cars will not necessarily increase the load on the power grid, provided they are charged primarily at times when electricity is plentiful. Conversely, if electric cars are able to feed electricity back into the grid when power is in short supply, they can also help make the grid more flexible and resilient. At present, researchers are still unsure whether the benefits of this process, known as bidirectional charging, will outweigh the still-high costs of installing the infrastructure.

“The question of whether electric cars will relieve the Swiss power grid or merely create an extra burden depends largely on how and when their owners recharge them,” explains Jonas Savelsberg from the ESC. “Floating electricity prices can play a major role in delivering the right incentives and exploiting the full potential of electric cars to increase grid flexibility.” With insights like these, the ESC is helping to improve our understanding of how the electricity grid will function in the future. At the same time, it is giving government and public administration the tools they need to steer power pricing to the maximum benefit.

Armed against cyberattacks

The Federal Administration is a regular target of cyber­attacks. In January of this year, for example, hackers disrupted access to a number of federal websites. In the worst case, such attacks can compromise critical administrative and military capabilities. Sound technical infrastructure is one line of defence; the other is ensuring that staff are properly educated as to the dangers. A dubious USB stick or one click in a phishing mail is all it takes to jeopardise a department’s entire IT system and operational capabilities, potentially leading to the loss of valuable data and damage to the reputation of the Federal Administration.

To counter this threat, Céline Herren from the Federal Department of Defence, Civil Protection and Sport (DDPS) is helping raise staff awareness of common cybersecurity risks. She holds lectures and workshops, designs e-learning modules and works on the department’s information campaigns. A psychologist by training, with no background in IT, she enrolled for the ETH Certificate of Advanced Studies in Cyber Security in autumn 2023. The course gave her a technical grounding in cyber­security and thereby sharpened her ability to assess new threats in this arena.

“It gave me deeper understanding of the latest issues and trends in cybersecurity, and that means I can now provide our staff with more detailed information and develop better teaching materials,” she explains. “Some of the modules were technically demanding. But if the knowledge I’ve gained can help the DDPS improve the way it deals with cyberattacks, then it will have been worth the effort!”