“You have to delegate everything you can”
Where do you see the greatest challenges for the ETH Domain?
First of all, our research institutions must be able to rely on a culture of openness in our relations with foreign countries, especially with the European Union. Switzerland has to be able to recruit the best scientists, national and international, and allow foreign students to stay and thus contribute to the country's economy. Our country is one of the most innovative nations thanks to its openness and the international competition, as well as our ability to integrate people from different backgrounds. The quality of our institutions is not determined by their infrastructure, but by the quality of the people who work there. It's like a football club – except we're looking for the best brains, not the best feet!
The current COVID-19 pandemic has nevertheless generated a nationalist isolation.
I am not too worried about this, because the corona crisis can only be solved through international collaboration. Not only from a health point of view, but also from an economic point of view: countries are all interdependent, also in terms of trade. The same applies to all the major challenges facing society, such as energy, climate and digitalization.
Will more money be needed?
We need solid funding, but we cannot rely solely on public money. We have to find more money elsewhere, with collaborations of course, but also with the development of Patronage, which in Switzerland is beginning to take an increasing interest in scientific research. We need to strengthen cooperation, which will make us more efficient. Competition never sleeps. In China, research funding shows a huge growth rate. The situation of international competition makes you think of the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland: we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place. And if you want to improve, you have to run even faster…
What other topics will you be working on?
Guaranteeing the autonomy of research structures, which is an essential aspect of their success. Each level of responsibility must retain only the competences it needs to carry out its functions. Everything else must be delegated downwards: from politics to universities, from management to faculties, and from the departments to professors and doctoral students. A bit like our federalist system, which delegates responsibility at every stage.
What is your vision for the ETH Board?
I want to generate as many synergies as possible and break down the walls that separate us from each other. I see a lot of scope for further intensifying collaboration between the institutions of the ETH Domain. A good example is the new master's program in cyber security introduced by EPFL and ETH Zurich. They combine their skills and thus offer a unique and very attractive training.
I also want to strengthen collaboration with external partners. With the universities of course – by the way, the director of PSI, Christian Rüegg, is a professor at the University of Geneva – but also with the universities of applied sciences. Our mission is national, and we need expertise from outside the ETH Domain. We are very strong on technological issues, but that is not enough. The contribution of social sciences and humanities will be crucial in overcoming the major challenges of our societies. Concrete results to grasp them are still lacking and not sufficiently coordinated. We see many local solutions – a consequence of federalism – but it will be necessary to consolidate this knowledge into a coherent set useful for the whole country.
The art lies in finding the right balance: optimising and avoiding duplication, especially in infrastructure, while maintaining a healthy competitiveness and leaving the possibility to try different approaches. It is a great challenge to engage above all in projects in which we really make a difference, and which would be impossible without us.
What legacy would you like to leave when you leave the ETH Board?
A legacy? Let's not talk about it yet! I've only been here for a few months.