“We should act as a catalyst” 

In the view of its president, Michael Hengartner, the ETH Board should encourage the creation of platforms to promote discussion between the worlds of science and politics. (2/3)
According to Michael Hengartner, the ETH Board should act as a catalyst for initiatives that enable science to better reach the political world. (© ETH Board)

In March 2020, the ETH Board launched a scientific task force to advise the federal government and the cantons in taking decisions to combat Covid-19. Does this experience encourage you to further commit the ETH Board to providing scientific expertise to politicians?

Very definitely. As I see it, the ETH Board should act as a catalyst for initiatives that enable scientists to better reach the world of politics. The role we played in setting up the task force was a step in this direction. A key part of our mission is to promote the transfer of scientific knowledge. Our institutions already do this to a large extent where society, the media and the economy are concerned – you only have to think of their role in research and development projects and the creation of start-ups – and they also often share their expertise with the authorities. In my view, it's very important for Switzerland to have think tanks similar to the task force to tackle other issues of national importance, such as the transition to green energy, climate change, sustainability or digitisation.

«Science and politics have different parts to play.»     

Have you a strategy to bring this about?

It’s too soon to draw conclusions from our experience with the task force; we shall be analysing the results once we've come through the present crisis. We are already holding discussions on the issues of climate change and sustainability. As with coronavirus, there are two aspects to this: on the one hand, we need to take these considerations to heart in order to change the way in which the ETH Domain institutions function – for instance, finding ways to reduce our own CO2 emissions or to speed up the transition to online courses. On the other, we want to use our skills and expertise to serve society generally. But the issues we have just mentioned are more difficult to deal with than the Covid-19 epidemic, as their effects are less visible and emerge only very slowly.

In your view, should politicians follow the recommendations issued by scientific committees of this kind?

Politicians cannot disregard them, as they need to take fully informed decisions. At the same time, consideration of other factors – political, societal or economic – may well lead them not to follow certain recommendations. Science and politics have different parts to play.

It’s essential that scientific research should be independent. So isn’t it true that these committees are too close to the seat of power to avoid political pressure?

The central issue is whether the scientists participating in these working groups can express themselves openly or not. If they can, there’s no real problem. But it’s important to formulate recommendations intelligently. After all, these people are experts, and experts who have won the trust of government bodies will be better placed to influence them... Then you have a constant give-and-take: scientists influencing politicians and politicians influencing scientists. These are things you have to accept if, as a researcher, you want to have a political impact.

Of course, not all scientists are called upon to dispense advice to politicians or engage in communication with the general public. There are also those who prefer to remain in their laboratories and classrooms, and that’s entirely legitimate. Science needs diversity, and society benefits as a result.

«It’s important to demonstrate to politicians that the public funds allocated to us add value for Switzerland.»     

The ETH Board should become a catalyst of expertise – a useful strategy for getting approval for increased funding?

It’s important to demonstrate to politicians that the public funds allocated to us add value for Switzerland. Scientific expertise that is of use to the authorities is one aspect of this.

This is not a new departure for us: my predecessor was a politician by nature who had a great affinity for the world of politics. It’s not enough to be in touch with politicians just once a year. The Covid-19 crisis will leave Switzerland with a deficit of several billion Swiss francs and an unprecedented economic crisis. Competition for public funding will be intense. We must do all we can to make the federal authorities understand just how much we contribute to the country’s development.