Fostering scientific cooperation with Asia

Swiss science benefits from international collaboration and exchange. Signing a mandate for another four years, ETH Zurich continues as Leading House for bilateral cooperation in science and technology East and Southeast Asia.
Martina Hirayama, State Secretary for Education, Research, and Innovation and Joël Mesot, ETH Zurich President held a virtual signing ceremony on Wednesday, 24 February 2021. (Image: ETH Zurich)

One of the strong features of Swiss science policy is its strategy for bilateral cooperation. While the early focus was on European and North American scientific cooperation, the bilateral programmes have broadened in scope. The State Secretary for Education, Research, and Innovation (SERI) engages ETH Zurich and other Swiss universities and institutes in Leading House mandates to support scientific cooperation and exchange programmes with focus regions in China, South and Southeast Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, and Iran.

ETH Zurich has been the Leading House for China since 2003, Japan and South Korea since 2008 and for the Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN) countries since 2017. A recent external evaluation of the bilateral programmes confirmed the substantial value that the Leading Houses bring to the internationalisation efforts of Swiss researchers and institutions. “As a Leading House, ETH Zurich brings many years of experience and expertise into a dynamic region that continues to display a great deal of potential for cooperation,” says State Secretary Martina Hirayama.

Opportunites, Grants and Exchanges

In its Leading House role, ETH Zurich manages grant funding and facilitates scientific exchanges and opportunities for researchers from Swiss higher education institutions and research institutes throughout the country who wish to collaborate on a project with Asian partners. In 2020, Irina Ritsch, a recently graduated doctoral researcher at ETH Zurich, spent much of the pandemic in Japan as a grant recipient of the Young Researcher’s Exchange Programme. A physical chemist, Ritsch worked with Professors Masahiro Shirakawa and Kenji Sugase at Kyoto University to design a project that combines Spin Labelling strategy with Rheo-Nuclear Magnetic Resonance spectroscopy to study the aggregation of alpha-synuclein – a key protein involved in Parkinson’s disease.

Through an Opportunity Grant, Ian Smith, now an Emeritus Professor from EPFL, was able to collaborate with the Singapore-ETH Centre’s Future Cities Laboratory. He worked with ETH Zurich Professor, Stephen Cairns on the award-winning expandable house – a sustainable architectural project in rural Indonesia. Dr. Isabelle Providoli, Centre for Development and Environment (CDE), University of Bern and her colleagues at CDE also benefited from Opportunity Grant funding spending time in Cambodia co-developing a curriculum on Sustainable Development and Sustainable Land Management. Representing CDE, she collaborated with the Royal University of Agriculture Cambodia to engage land users in more sustainable agricultural production and natural resource management.

While language and culture may strike a stark contrast to life in Switzerland, researchers reveal a common thread in their experiences in Asia - the language of science and technology.

Future Focus on Diversity

In a virtual signing ceremony held earlier this week, ETH Zurich President, Joël Mesot and State Secretary Martina Hirayama renewed ETH Zurich’s mandate to continue as the Leading House for bilateral cooperation in science and technology with China, Japan, South Korea, and ASEAN member states. SERI has allocated a budget of 3.8 million Swiss francs in funding for the 2021 – 2024 period. The funding will be used to increase cooperation, counter balance the negative effects of the global pandemic on early-career scientists, and promote diversity and inclusion.

President Mesot commented, “ETH Zurich is grateful for the continued mandate. It demonstrates the trust and appreciation for our expertise in supporting international scientific cooperation. We are deeply committed to using our network in this region for the benefit of the Swiss science and technology community.”