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Business

     
           
 

Business. The ETH and the world of industry

Since 1855, the Polytechnic has been producing knowledge for the science market as well as for the industry market. From the very beginning, the institute of technology and industry had always been mutually dependent: the ETH provides industry with engineers, patents and equipment. Private industry, along with the cantonal governments, supports research at the ETH with third-party funding. But despite their shared interests, there are also certain fundamental differences. While scientists have to make their mark by publishing the results of their research, and the free exchange of findings is taken for granted, private industry is, by definition, more concerned with monopolies and secrecy.
   
  !!! This document is stored in the ETH Web archive and is no longer maintained !!!    
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Business

     
           
 

The controversial prestige of the technologist

In the second half of the 19th century a new profession came into being, that of the engineer trained at the Polytechnic, but their social status remained ambiguous. To improve their image, graduates from the Polytechnic set up their own association such as the Society for Former Polytechnic Students, GEP. With their shared interests, these members of the new elite were able to state their case more effectively. At the beginning of the 20th century, the academic “blessing” bestowed on the institutes of technology did little initially to improve their status. The First World War in particular led to a wave of criticism of technologists, which made them feel obliged to justify themselves. But there were also engineers who revived the argument of the “cultural value of technology”, one of them being the ETH professor Aurel Stodola, in his Weltanschauung “from the point of view of the engineer”, which came out in 1931.
Wishful thinking: the engineer as bridge builder.
Wishful thinking: the engineer as bridge builder.
   
 
   
 
 
 
 
 
 
   
 
 
 
 
 
 
   
 
 
 

 
 
   
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Business

     
           
 

Administrating space through science and technology

Life at the Polytechnic had a practical bias very early on because of the obligation to be of assistance to the Swiss federal state in the building up of a national infrastructure. As a forward-looking institution, the federal technical school supported the sites and the long-term security of major technical systems. During the 19th century it was closely associated with the development of federal power structures and economic monopolies. The Polytechnic can thus be regarded as a government instrument, gathering and sustaining knowledge for industry and administration as the basis of the decision-making process. One of the earliest services on behalf of the administration was in the field of the scientific testing of materials.
Extension of the infrastructure: church blessing for the dam of the SBB power station Barberine (VS), September 13, 1925.
Extension of the infrastructure: church blessing for the dam of the SBB power station Barberine (VS), September 13, 1925.
   
 
   
 
 
 
 
 
 
   
 
 
 
 
 
 
   
 
 
 
 
 
   
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Business

     
           
 

Industrial investment

A special feature of the Swiss national system of innovation is the great contribution made by industry in financing research. The financial bottlenecks created by the need for advanced technological equipment exceeded both the capacity of the University as well as that of individual companies. In the 1930s, the broadly based foundations and funds of private industry represented a new form of promoting the sciences. With their project-oriented funding they had a marked influence on the organization of research. Equally innovative were the mixed-financed institutes, which came into being in the period between the wars. The new financing systems made it possible for the State to share the investment risk for potentially successful research projects with one or several branches of industry.
   
 
   
 
 
 
 
 
 
   
 
 
 
 
 
 
   
 
 
 
 
 
   
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Business

     
           
 

Between market and science

ETH graduates on field work: engineers visit building sites. Picture from the estate of the engineer Walter Graf.
ETH graduates on field work: engineers visit building sites. Picture from the estate of the engineer Walter Graf.
One aspect of the interchange between industry and university is the fact that the ETH returns industrialised knowledge in generalized form to the practical sphere. In so doing, the School always had to abide by the rules of both science and the market. And so the setting up of the laboratories in the 1880s and the 1890s was accompanied by an experimentalisation of theory. At the same time, the ability to link abstract forms of knowledge to industrial practice had to be constantly reestablished. The organizational development of the Polytechnic was thus carried out in the field of tension between the institutions school, factory and laboratory. The challenge for the ETH lay in balancing the relationship between this trio and being responsible for coordinating it.
   
 
   
 
 
 
 
 
 
   
 
 
 
 
 
 
   
 
 
 
 
 
   
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Business

     
           
 

Cross-border workers

The relations between university and industry must be cultivated. Those who cross the borders between science, politics and industry are not rare figures in innovative fields of research. Instead, actors on the university scene often have implicit knowledge, contacts, instruments and ways of looking at problems, funds and posts. They move easily between the different worlds and open up productive channels of communication. Thus it comes as no surprise that academic activity still functions in a very people-oriented way: institutional changes usually coincide with new staff appointments.
Presidents like Robert Gnehm or Arthur Rohn, who had links with the world of industry, had a special position. With close contacts to the world of politics and to their original professions, they brought together science, politics and industry in a union of personnel.
Enterprising cross-border worker between science, politics and industry: Bust of the ETH president Arthur Rohn (1878-1956).
Enterprising cross-border worker between science, politics and industry: Bust of the ETH president Arthur Rohn (1878-1956).
   
 
   
 
 
 
 
 
 
   
 
 
 
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Business

     
           
 

The commercialisation of science

Are universities today no longer “places of free thinking” but rather “companies for producing knowledge”? Is the talk of “commercialization” and “capitalization” of science an accurate diagnosis? Since the 1990s, more and more signs of a new openness are beginning to emerge between commerce and science. Improved transfer of technology is expected to encourage innovation. Natural scientists are increasingly called upon to have managerial qualifications. But at the same time, a close watch is being kept on the industrial sponsoring of academic research; free communication is not just a vital prerequisite for science but is deeply embedded in the cultural self-conception of democratic societies.

Market-oriented competitors or an academic power couple: snow-covered domes of the University and the ETH in the 1980s.
Market-oriented competitors or an academic power couple: snow-covered domes of the University and the ETH in the 1980s.

As the two sides come closer together, this also creates new demarcation lines. It reinforces the value of scientific neutrality, for this is the basis of the authority and credibility of the reports of scientific experts.