Sibling rivalry hits Swiss institutes

Establishments clash over funding.

Tempers erupted last week at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zürich (ETHZ), with faculty members claiming that its board had sneakily siphoned its budget off to Switzerland's other federal institute, the EPFL in Lausanne.

Interim president of ETHZ Konrad Osterwalder has complained formally to the Swiss government, saying that the ETH Board — a politically independent body responsible for both universities and for four federal research institutes — “made serious errors in both the form and content of [its] decision on the allocation of the 2008 budget”. Department heads at ETHZ have also asked Pascal Couchepin, the government minister responsible for research and higher education, for his support in solving the crisis.

As part of Switzerland's push to bolster its research and higher education sector, the ETH Board's budget for 2008 will be nearly 4% higher than that for this year. The board decided to give a disproportionate sum to EPFL, even though there has been no political decision about how Switzerland might afford a second top-level university, say staff from ETHZ. The staff say that the board used different starting budgets to calculate the percentage increase for each institute, and that it did not release the information within the required time before the meeting.

ETHZ also hit the headlines last November when faculty members forced its president, Ernst Hafen, to resign. Hafen had tried to implement organizational changes at the university that had been desired by the board but that the faculty members thought were detrimental to the institute.

“The source of all the problems is the ETH Board,” says Kathy Rifkin, spokeswoman for the Swiss parliamentary committee on science and research. She says that parliament is discussing the abolition of the board, to bring more decision-making back into the government — most particularly decisions about apportioning the budget.

Alexander Zehnder, president of the ETH Board, says that he is surprised by the reaction. “The extra money given to Lausanne was not core money, but strategic funds used to integrate cancer research into that university plus some extra to reward the improvement in its research quality,” he says. He adds that the board's procedures for budget allocation were transparent. The government has declined to comment on the dispute.

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Abbott, A. Sibling rivalry hits Swiss institutes. Nature 447, 625 (2007). https://doi.org/10.1038/447625a

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