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The question that has to be asked about Switzerland in the latest World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report is how come it got first, and New Zealand slipped to 23rd from 20th?

Any jokes about cuckoo clock manufacturers is restrained when the report notes the country’s excellent capacity for innovation (rated 2nd for innovation capacity) and a very sophisticated business culture. It also has some of the world’s best scientific institutions and strong collaboration between the academic and business sectors.

This collaboration, combined with high company spending on R&D ensures that much of this research is translated into marketable products and processes. In other words, they make value-added stuff that people want really cleverly.

This pacesetter performance inspired the N.Z. Institute to go and have a closer look at the European nation late last year.

One powerful observation that director Rick Boven made was that a number of years ago, Switzerland had gathered up a number of small scientific institutes under one (virtual) institute.

“This provided a much more concentrated and integrated effort,” Boven says. A bulk funding for longer terms model is associated with these institutes, and they have external performance review (also see, ‘Standing on the Shoulders of Science’, a NZ Institute, Dec. 2009 publication).

Swiss National Centres of Competence in Research (NCCR) are reviewed every six years on scientific, administration and financial performance. The panels include international researchers and representatives of public and private sectors, served by the NCCR, and informed by recommendations from the review panel, the NCCR’s funding is increased or decreased. NCCRs are expected to develop their own revenue streams.

Boven says the external review process and funding processes provide incentive for institutes to perform effectively, without the disadvantages of fragmentation.

The Swiss themselves say it, with its National Science Foundation (SNSF) review of NCCRs concluding that “Our expectations have been met to a greater extent than anticipated.”

What the Swiss have done is increase collaboration between science researchers, and between researchers and industry in developing an idea into income.

There are obviously very few wasted meetings.

Should we model the cuckoo clock makers?

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