“In times of crisis, science must give clear, comprehensible advice”

The ETH Board has had a new president, Michael Hengartner, since 1 February 2020. In this interview, he looks back on his first few months in this post and his first major act: the launch of a scientific task force to combat the coronavirus pandemic, which formed the basis for the Swiss National COVID-19 Science Task Force. (1/3)
Michael Hengartner, President of the ETH Board since 1 February 2020. (©ETH Board)

You left your post as Rector of the University of Zurich five months ago. How are you finding your new role, which is much more political?

Fine! Politics brings together interesting, committed people who stand up for their ideas. They represent society as a whole, and it is incumbent on me to build good relationships with all the political parties. I have some experience in this area, since there was a similar situation with the cantonal commissions that had dealings with the University of Zurich.

What were your first tasks?

Meeting the members of the parliamentary committees involved with the ETH Domain, to tell them what we do and what we need, and also to listen to them. It is very important to prepare the ground in advance so that you already have good contacts when more delicate situations arise, such as budget negotiations or debates about our relations with the European Union. Trust develops slowly. At the moment I’m not looking to make radical changes in the way we work. One thing is clear though: I want the ETH Board to have greater visibility in French-speaking Switzerland. The fact that I grew up speaking French should help.

What do you miss in your new job?

Direct contact with scientists and students, whom I met regularly while I was teaching, and the energy they transmit to me. Now I am slightly farther away from the people on the ground. I really want to find time to get my dose of science! The system of inaugural lectures and participation in round tables presents good opportunities to keep in contact with scientists and student associations.

You are a biochemist. Do you miss research?

Of course. But I had already decided to close my laboratory back in 2014 when I was appointed Rector of the University of Zurich, because doing cutting-edge experimental research while simultaneously managing an institution of that size did not appear to me to be possible.

«Establishing the task force was discussed on Saturday, 14 March 2020 during a teleconference with the presidents of the two Federal Institutes of Technology.»     

What’s been the biggest surprise since you joined the ETH Board?

The Covid-19 crisis, naturally. We’ve made it our top priority since February 2020. It immediately become very concrete, with the quarantining of ETH Zurich and EPFL students returning from China.

Name one thing you can already feel proud of

Definitely the speed with which we were able to set up the Science Task Force. Establishing the task force was discussed on Saturday, 14 March 2020 during a teleconference with the presidents of the two Federal Institutes of Technology, Joël Mesot and Martin Vetterli. The heads of the Domain’s six institutions then identified and invited the scientists best able to contribute to the task force; they all responded very rapidly. A dozen people agreeing in less than an hour to do extra work for no pay is something I’d never come across before! People were keen to help, though, and it was clear that the time factor was absolutely crucial at that point, when the epidemic was growing exponentially. On Thursday, 19 March we announced the launch of the task force.

What was the objective of this task force?

First of all we sought to coordinate the steps that had to be taken to manage the epidemic within the Domain’s institutions. Next, we wanted to use our expertise to support the efforts of local partners by mobilising our laboratories to offer increased capacity for Covid-19 tests, manufacture personal protective equipment for hospitals, construct epidemiological models, etc.

So it wasn't a question of advising the Swiss government?

In my opinion, before giving out advice you have to show you know what you're talking about – “do your homework first”, in other words. Our initial aim was to get things moving and coordinate the response, because we were aware of a huge willingness on the part of scientists, students and staff to use their knowledge and skills to combat the epidemic.

«During a crisis, it is usual for the authorities to mobilise their own network, in which they already have confidence.»     

Ten days later, the task force was removed from the ETH Domain and became a national body. Was this a source of regret for you?

No, quite the reverse. Matthias Egger, President of the National Research Council of the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF), immediately called me about expanding it and we decided to invite Marcel Tanner, President of the Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences, and Yves Flückiger, President of swissuniversities. Next, we approached the government – the Federal Council, the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH) and the State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation (SERI) – for an official mandate: to outline the scientific expertise available to assist the authorities in managing the crisis. At that point, the ETH Board was no longer responsible for the task force, and I stepped back.

But the Confederation could have set up that kind of committee itself, and done so sooner...

During a crisis, it is usual for the authorities to mobilise their own network, in which they already have confidence. However, we did notice an initial lack of interaction between the federal government and the academic world.

We had to get to know each other... Some members of the task force had voiced criticism of the decisions and statements made by the FOPH, which subsequently asked the scientists to talk to it before speaking to the press. The task force submits independent recommendations based on current scientific knowledge. The politicians then make their decisions, taking these views into consideration alongside other relevant factors in other areas. This division of responsibilities is perfectly usual.

One important point is that these recommendations reflect a measure of scientific consensus. This reduces the risk of the free-for-all that results when experts tasked with advising government produce contradictory analyses, as has sometimes been seen in other countries. In times of crisis, science must give clear, comprehensible advice.