Technologies from the ‘digital world’ research category have continually attracted less attention in recent years, while energy-related topics have become more important. The ‘manufacturing processes and materials’ research category is going unnoticed by the public in all countries. Attention paid to life science technologies also remains at a relatively low level, but has increased significantly in Austria and Switzerland.
Since 2018, SATW has been monitoring the official Twitter (rebranded as X in 2023) accounts of universities in seven countries: Switzerland, its four biggest neighbours (Germany, France, Austria and Italy), and the United Kingdom. This year, the United States of America has been added as well. In total, around 2,500 universities’ activity on Twitter is being analysed. The six countries selected for comparison with Switzerland were chosen on the basis of Swiss export statistics from the Federal Statistical Office (FSO) and represent Switzerland’s most important trading partners.
An analysis of this kind shows how the universities perceive the technological discourse in their respective social environments. In this respect, this type a comparison yields information about which topics attract attention where and, as SATW has the data for 2018 to 2022, which discursive trends these topics are affected by. However, such a comparison does not yield any information about what is being researched where, or how intensively; this would require evaluation of publications and, where appropriate, patents.
The seven countries differ greatly in terms of their number of universities. The selection is further limited by the fact that only those higher-education institutions that have their own Twitter accounts are included. Thus, in addition to technical universities, the selection also includes general universities, art colleges, and universities of teacher education. While SATW identified only 43 Austrian higher-education institutions with an official Twitter account, the number was over 260 in Germany and as many as 1,724 in the USA.
|Number of universities covered||Number of universities tweeting about at least one of the topics from 2018 to 2022|
The official Twitter accounts of these 2,557 universities published 2,270,774 tweets between 2018 and 2022. The table clearly shows an immense difference between the individual countries: For instance, there were significantly more tweets overall from universities in France and the United Kingdom than from those in Austria and Switzerland. Factoring in the number of universities per country and calculating the average number of tweets per university and year for each country, the UK comes out on top, with an average of 934 per university. While the universities in Austria tweeted once every three days on average, the average in the UK was just under three tweets per day per university. With an average of 260 tweets per university per year, Switzerland was towards the rear of the middle of the pack.
|2018||2019||2020||2021||2022||Total||Average number of tweets per university and year|
The table above and the chart below show a decrease in tweets on the official Twitter accounts of universities in all European countries – except for Switzerland and Austria, which both show a slight increase. Overall, the number of tweets fell by almost 37 percent between 2018 and 2022.
Of these approximately 2.3 million tweets, 19,026 had content related to a technology described in Technology Outlook. There was also a significant decline in these analysis-relevant tweets, as shown in the graph below. In fact, the downturn in tweets referring to technologies described in Technology Outlook was almost 50 percent; it varied greatly from country to country. In France and the UK in particular, the number of tweets really plummeted.
To ensure that figures are comparable across countries and years, the following does not count individual tweets, but rather universities that tweeted about a technology or research category. This change in methodology means that the figures on which this section is based cannot be compared with those in the corresponding sections in previous editions of Technology Outlook. At the same time, universities that have a single focal topic, on which they post numerous tweets, are given less weight in this analysis. Conversely, technologies that are mentioned by many universities are given more weight.
The technologies included in Technology Outlook come from the ‘digital world’, ‘energy and environment’, ‘manufacturing processes and materials’, and ‘life sciences’ research categories. One advantage of comparing the countries in terms of these research categories is that it is not necessary to compare 30 technologies among seven countries, but only four research categories. Aggregating the data also makes the results more meaningful. If universities are counted that commented on at least one technology in the respective research category, the following picture emerges for the year 2022:
|Digital world||Energy and environment||Manufacturing processes and materials||Life sciences||Total|
The table clearly shows that across all the countries, more universities tweeted about digital world technologies than about the other three research categories combined. Discussions on the monitored universities’ accounts made virtually no mention of technologies in the ‘manufacturing processes and materials’ research category. The lack of attention paid to manufacturing processes and materials should not obscure the fact that material development in particular has led to decisive scientific breakthroughs that have become an indispensable part of our everyday lives. After all, innovations such as the touch display, for instance, emerged from this research category. The notion that materials thus go unnoticed by the public is also in line with an observation mentioned in the section on societal impact. How did this come about though? How has the discussion changed over the years?
Although science still gets described as an ivory tower, scientists, research programmes and entire universities are situated within a social environment which they respond to and influence. In this context, university communication plays an important role as an interface between the university and the social environment that is considered relevant to it. Accordingly, thematic shifts in university communication can sometimes indicate how current or relevant a particular topic is at a given point in time. As data for the USA is only available for 2022, the country is not included in the following analysis.
SATW includes the following technologies in the ‘digital world’ research category: 5G, autonomous vehicles, blockchain, building information modelling (BIM), connected machines, digital twins, extended reality, Internet of Things (IoT), photonic integrated circuits (PICs), quantum and post-quantum cryptography, and quantum computing.
Even though the digital world is still the research category that draws the most attention by far on the universities’ Twitter accounts, it is evident that the number of universities commenting on digital technologies has declined sharply. In the UK and Switzerland, the number of university accounts tweeting about digital technologies has fallen by around 15 percentage points since 2018.
The following table cannot be directly compared with the chart above, as the table counts the number of commenting universities per technology, whereas the chart is based on the number of commenting universities per research category. The table breaks down the ‘digital world’ research category into its individual technologies.
|Building information modelling||-1.1||-0.4||-1.2||-6.8||0||-1.1||-1.8|
|Internet of things||-4.9||-13.0||-3.9||-9.3||-5.8||-10.2||-7.8|
|Photonic integrated circuits||0.2||-0.4||0||0.6||0||1.1||0.3|
|Quantum and post-quantum cryptography||0.6||0.9||0||0.6||0||-1.1||0.2|
Interestingly, the biggest decline is in technologies that are the most present in the discourse. Across Europe as a whole, less attention was paid to blockchain (-9.1 percentage points), internet of things (-7.8 percentage points), extended reality (-6.3 percentage points) and autonomous vehicles (-4.3 percentage points) in particular. Attention paid to blockchain and internet of things decreased in all countries. Extended reality and autonomous vehicles attracted less attention in all countries except Austria. At the same time, the topic of digital twins saw an increase in all countries. Comparing changes on Twitter with changes in the four-quadrant diagram, it seems that industry is handing the topic of digital twins back to researchers.
In 5G, photonic integrated circuits, quantum and post-quantum cryptography, and quantum computing, the changes were more heterogeneous. It is interesting that quantum computing did not experience a sharper rise in Austria after Anton Zeilinger was awarded the Nobel Prize. In contrast, the number of universities in Switzerland tweeting on this topic increased by 9.1 percentage points, a significant rise in the amount of attention paid to it.
Attention paid to technologies in the ‘energy and environment’ research category increased everywhere except in Italy. This mainly reflects the increased interest in alternative energy sources. As this increase in tweets predates the war in Ukraine, it can be assumed that the main driver is concern about climate change, rather than discussions about how to increase energy self-sufficiency.
|Sustainable food production||0||0||3.0||-2.5||1.2||0||0.3|
|Negative emissions technologies||1.9||2.4||4.5||1.9||-2.3||4.6||2.1|
Changes in the ‘energy and the environment’ research category are significantly more heterogeneous and country-specific than those in the ‘digital world’ category. In Switzerland in particular, mentions of photovoltaics (+15.9 percentage points) and carbon capture and storage (+4.6 percentage points) increased, while mobility concepts (-9.1 percentage points), artificial photosynthesis (-3.4 percentage points) and geothermal energy (-1.1 percentage points) were paid less attention. In Germany, all technologies saw a slight increase, except for mobility concepts and sustainable food production, both of which underwent no change. Attention paid to photovoltaics in Switzerland rose more sharply than any of the monitored technologies in any monitored country.
The ‘manufacturing processes and materials’ research category attracted the least discursive attention. As only very few universities commented on these technologies, the changes cannot really be compared; just one more, or one less, university tweeting about one of the technologies would have a huge impact on the comparison. While additive manufacturing was among the most mentioned technologies in the 2021 edition of Technology Outlook, it is no longer included in this data. As additive manufacturing processes have since become product-ready in many areas, they are addressed in numerous example showcases. Nevertheless, a cautious look at changes in the ‘manufacturing processes and materials’ research category shows an increase in Germany, the United Kingdom and Austria, while attention paid to manufacturing processes and materials declined slightly in France, Italy and Switzerland.
SATW only monitors the technological aspects of the life sciences, and not, for instance, the medical ones. This research category thus comprises the following technologies: alternative protein sources, bioinspiration and biointegration, biocatalysis, mass cultivation of stem cells, microbiome, personalised nutrition, point-of-care testing, robotic surgery, and synthetic biology.
Overall, life science technologies received slightly less attention, except in Austria, Switzerland and France, where they saw a slight upturn. This may be surprising in view of the life sciences’ importance in combating the coronavirus pandemic, but is probably due to the aspects that SATW focuses on. A look at the individual technologies in this research category provides a somewhat more detailed picture of developments.
|Alternative protein sources||-1.1||-0.4||0.6||-0.6||-1.2||-3.4||-1.0|
|Bioinspiration and biointegration||1.1||0||1.2||0.6||0||2.3||0.7|
|Mass cultivation of stem cells||-3.0||-1.3||-4.5||-16.1||1.2||-4.6||-4.7|
Developments in biocatalysis and microbiome technologies are particularly interesting in the country comparison. The number of universities tweeting about biocatalysis declined or remained stable in all countries except for Switzerland (+2.3 percentage points) and the UK (+0.3 percentage points).
Changes in tweets about the microbiome were almost universally positive. However, the change was most pronounced in Austria (+5.8 percentage points) and Switzerland (+5.7 percentage points). A look at the tweets from Austrian universities in 2022 shows that they came from the Medical University of Vienna, the Medical University of Graz and the University of Vienna. Centres for microbiome research have been set up at all three of these universities in recent years. The content of the tweets dealt with research grants received and study results, as well as the connection between health and the microbiome, which has now become part of the collective consciousness.
Of the eleven Swiss tweets about the microbiome, all (with one exception) came from French-speaking Switzerland: They were posted by Lausanne University Hospital (CHUV), the University of Geneva and Geneva University Hospital. These tweets also included the microbiome and health as topics, but on the whole, they seemed somewhat more technologically oriented than those from Austria. For instance, they addressed treatments, the connection between digestion and the microbiome, genetic tools for understanding the interaction between the organism and its microbiome, and conferences.