Excellent research for the challenges of our age

With its high standard of teaching and research, the ETH Domain also has a great responsibility in addressing current challenges. It is focusing on issues such as climate change, the sustainable use of resources or the digital transformation. A reliable education policy framework, as well as effective structures, are crucial factors in meeting this responsibility.

“Exceptional quality”, “unique positioning”, “important innovation hub” – the international group of experts of the 2019 intermediate evaluation emphasised the great performance and central importance of the ETH Domain both within the Swiss university landscape and in comparison with teaching and research institutions worldwide. The intermediate evaluation of the ETH Domain, which was commissioned by the Federal Department of Economic Affairs, Education and Research (EAER) and carried out in the middle of the current ERI period, is testament to the excellent work being done at the six institutions. The two Federal Institutes of Technology are among the top universities in the world. This is also evidenced by the various international rankings in which the two universities were very well placed in 2019 once again (see Fig. 16 and 17,
p. 93).

Spotlight on research: Sustainable development
and digitalisation

With their excellent research and teaching, the institutions of the ETH Domain can play an important part in addressing current and future challenges facing our country. During the meetings for the development of the ERI Dispatch 2021–2024, some of these challenges were identified as central “approaches” for all ERI funding areas. For example, they include sustainable development and digital transformation. Both areas are also priority areas of research in the ETH Domain.

In the broad subject area of sustainable development, the institutions have a particular focus on energy research. The “Coordinated Energy Research Switzerland” action plan as a package of measures for the Federal Government's 2050 Energy Strategy has an important role to play here. Furthermore, energy research is one of the four strategic focus areas defined by the ETH Board in the current ERI period. Challenging tasks such as the sustainable restructuring of Swiss energy production, lowering CO2 emissions or increasing the efficiency of the energy system are being addressed in a large number of research projects. The energy research platform ReMaP (Renewable Management and Real-Time Control Platform) was launched in 2019. This platform is dedicated to interconnected issues, such as changing electricity consumption in the case of local energy storage. Existing research and technology transfer platforms in the ETH Domain are being connected, opening up links between the distribution network, energy management, buildings and mobility. The institutions of the ETH Domain have also been involved in the development of SWEET (Swiss Energy Research for Energy Transition), the successor programme by the Swiss Federal Office of Energy (SFOE) to the “Coordinated Energy Research Switzerland” action plan.

As far as digital transformation is concerned, the institutions of the ETH Domain are conducting intensive research into the technological foundations and applying them in a wide range of areas. All three strategic focus areas of the ETH Domain “Personalized Health”, “Data Sciences” and “Advanced Manufacturing” contain central aspects of the digitalisation process. The two Federal Institutes of Technology have been enhancing their capacities for some time now, particularly in the areas of computer sciences and information and communication technology. This includes the seven additional professorships which ETH Zurich and EPFL are setting up as part of the Federal Government's “Digitalisation” action plan. Five of those places were filled in 2019. One of the priorities is the security challenge in the digital environment. The two Federal Institutes of Technology successfully launched the joint Master's programme Cyber Security in 2019. In addition, parts of the Cyber-Defence Campus of the Federal Department of Defence, Civil Protection and Sport (DDPS) were opened at EPFL and ETH Zurich in the autumn. The purpose of the campus is to provide early warning of rapid developments in cyber security and to work on new technologies for hazard prevention.

In dialogue with policy-makers and society

In the face of current developments and challenges, responsible scientific research involves acting as an advisor to policy-makers in order to facilitate decision-making based on facts. Trust in science and its processes is of the utmost importance, especially in the current context of fake news and highly personalised and polarising debates. The need for science to be “given a face” and for experts from the ETH Domain to have advisory input in the political negotiation process is stressed in the final report of the intermediate evaluation.

The social responsibility of the scientific community is particularly evident in the area of digital transformation. The continuously expanded range of continuing education courses offered by the institutions of the ETH Domain, adapted to reflect the current needs of the various professions, is designed to help get society ready for the digital age. The education of the younger generation is of particular importance. For example, the two Federal Institutes of Technology support the development of ICT teaching in schools with initial and further training courses for teachers and the development of curricula.

Reliable framework conditions,
effective structures

Various factors are of pivotal importance in order to continue to provide excellent research and teaching for current challenges in the future. The experts who contributed to the intermediate evaluation have touched upon several important framework conditions in their recommendations. One of them is stable, reliable funding by the Federal Government. The autonomy of the ETH Domain and its six institutions in the use of financial resources is also key in this context. This also applies to the free, strategic reserves that give the institutions room for manoeuvre in favour of new scientific fields and initiatives. The new guidelines for the reserve policy in the ETH Domain passed by the ETH Board set out reference values and principles for management, among other things. The expert panel also emphasised the international openness of the ETH Domain as another important framework condition. Access to cross-border research development programmes such as “Horizon Europe” is central to the attractiveness and international network of Switzerland as a centre of research.

In addition to the external framework conditions, the intermediate evaluation also looked at how the structure of the ETH Domain has evolved historically. The experts recommended continuing the review of this structure that had been initiated by the ETH Board in order to increase the agility and flexibility of the ETH Domain and to gear its development towards future needs. In September, the ETH Board took the key strategic decision to merge WSL and Eawag in the medium term into a research institute for the environment and sustainability with international stature. At the end of 2019, the consultation of the institutions of the ETH Domain on this project got under way. This is intended to enable research in the ETH Domain to make an even more purposeful contribution towards solutions for a sustainable future for our society and to further boost Switzerland's position as a centre of research in the environment and sustainability.