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Impact of Physics

Study by the Swiss Physical Society shows: industries in which physics plays a central role create added economic and social value

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A study [1] commissioned by the Swiss Physical Society (SPS) on the influence of physics on Swiss economy and society comes to a clear conclusion: physics drives progress. "Having physics in the country always benefits society", Hans Peter Beck, former SPS president and one of the drivers of the study, sums up the almost 50-page work. IMSD, a data analysis and statistics service company, provided the statistical data with financial support from SCNAT. The data was analysed and interpreted by the SPS and supplemented with case studies, interviews and other facts. The result: in terms of economic efficiency, the physics sector - i.e. all the companies for which the application of physics as a technology or expertise is existential - outperforms even manufacturing, trade or construction. From a societal perspective, it contributes significantly to overcoming the currently greatest challenges of climate and energy and to creating a scientifically educated population.

One example of how artificial intelligence and data analysis know-how from physics can make life easier for older people is caru, a company based in Zurich and Zagreb. The company, which has already grown to over 10 employees, was co-founded by ETH Zurich graduate Susanne Dröscher. She noticed how her own grandparents were no longer able to keep up with modern technology in a phase of life in which they were increasingly dependent on outside help. Dröscher came up with a solution. An unobtrusive, very easy to use alarm station connected to the mobile phone and WLAN network now enables elderly people in emergency situations at home to alert the emergency services simply by calling for help. The system is based on AI care management that relies on fast and complex processing of data. Many companies and start-ups today need such skills, which physics graduates learn and apply naturally during their studies.

The SPS study is the first of its kind in Switzerland. It was triggered by a similar report by the European Physical Society EPS[2] on the importance of physics for the European economy, which looked at a six-year period in 31 countries based on Eurostats data. The British Institute of Physics IoP [3] regularly reviews the impact of physics-based industries on the economy, "with eye-opening results", as Hans Peter Beck points out. For optimal comparability, the SPS study therefore follows the categories and metrics of the other studies. Physics-based industries (PBI) are defined as those sectors of the European economy in which the use of physics - in the form of technologies and expertise - is crucial to their existence. The fields of activity range from medical technology, electronics and telecommunications to technologies such as the Internet of Things project caru.

But of course it is not only start-ups that drive the economy - large industries such as IBM or the biotech giant Roche cannot do without physics expertise. On the one hand, they need physicists in their own workforce; on the other hand, they cooperate closely with scientific and research institutions in Switzerland to bring fundamental research to application. Interviews and statements from business leaders elaborate on this in the study and explain where fundamental research should be promoted and where the results of fundamental research should be put into practice to create a constant flow of innovation that serves as a driver in science, business and society.

More complex technologies, good breeding grounds for start-ups and niche markets for start-ups for complex technologies - the indications are good for PBIs. In fact, the turnover of the physics-related industries is 274 billion Swiss francs; their share of Switzerland's gross value added is 13 % of the entire economy and lies between finance and manufacturing. Converted to gross value added per full-time equivalent job, the PBI does even better: at CHF 219 400 per full-time equivalent job, it is not only well above trade and manufacturing, but also above the Swiss average, which was CHF 165 600 in 2019. Here, Switzerland clearly outperforms its neighbouring countries: Germany, with approx. 120 000 francs gross value added per full-time equivalent in the PBI, is significantly below the Swiss value, while France, with 170 000 francs, takes second place. And the trend was clearly upwards during the measurement period, more so than in other economic sectors. While the average growth in the ratio of gross value added to full-time equivalent in Switzerland between 2015 and 2019 is 2.3%, it is 6.3% in the PBI. The study estimates that "for every franc of direct physics-related production, a total of 2.31 to 2.49 francs of total economic production is realised". So physics clearly plays an important role in the Swiss economy and all signs are that this importance will increase in the future.

"Physics" here means on the one hand technologies, instruments, machines and software. On the other hand, the human factor also plays a significant role in the success of PBI in the Swiss economy, both on the research side and on the industrial side. Direct contact between researchers and companies is central to the rapid marketability of a new product. According to the study, Switzerland's excellently trained physics graduates are a guarantee for the transfer of cutting-edge knowledge and high-tech into the economy - but there aren't enough of these graduates. The study therefore advocates promoting young people, especially girls, at an early age, not only to counteract the shortage of skilled workers, but also to balance out the very pronounced imbalance of male to female students and PhD students in Switzerland. Targeted programmes in and outside schools are intended to inspire interest in the natural sciences among more pupils. And not only among them, emphasises Hans Peter Beck. The general public should also be better informed about the benefits and potential of physics and related sciences through more information. " A society only becomes truly mature through knowledge," Beck sums up. "Only on the basis of fact-based knowledge can you make decisions that have a lasting impact on society and the whole world. We in physics have a great responsibility in this regard to improve the understanding of physics in society!"

Barbara Warmbein

More information:

[1] SPS Focus No 2: Impact of Physics on Swiss Society

[2] EPS-Report „The Importance of Physics to the Economies of Europe”

[3] Institute of Physics study “Physics and the Economy” 2022 findings


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