Prof. Dr Michael O. Hengartner

Dear readers

It is impossible not to mention the coronavirus pandemic in an annual report for 2020 because it has changed all of our lives to such a great extent. In the ETH Domain, I am thinking in particular of the students. From one day to the next, they were only allowed to follow lectures online and no longer had access to the buildings and the campuses of the two Federal Institutes of Technology. Personal contact with study colleagues on site completely fell by the wayside. The home – usually a group of people sharing a flat, a student hall of residence or a room in their parents’ house – became cramped. However, I am also thinking of all the employees of the ETH Domain who were in a similar situation: working from home and virtual team meetings instead of shared coffee breaks. It was a great challenge to reconcile work and family life when kindergartens and schools were closed and the children were at home.

Many of these students, doctoral students and employees in the ETH Domain have nevertheless – or precisely for this reason – made important contributions in numerous projects, in order to help manage the coronavirus pandemic. For example, students launched online platforms that helped healthcare institutions find volunteers and support staff. Researchers in the ETH Domain tested the quality of masks, analysed the structure of the virus, detected it in the waste water or developed the SwissCovid app on behalf of the Federal Government. They were available to the media and authorities for questions about the importance of aerosols, the so-called R value, the economic impact of the pandemic or where and how the virus spreads most.

The Swiss National COVID-19 Science Task Force played a special role. Originally developed as an idea from within the ETH Domain, the Swiss ERI actors, the Swiss National Science Foundation, swissuniversities and the Swiss Academies of Arts and Sciences, were given the mandate from the
Federal Government to advise authorities with scientific findings, in order to support them in their decision making. This cooperation between science and politics is not always conflict-free, as different systems and understandings of roles meet. However, I am convinced that it is fruitful and profitable for both sides. I hope that this cooperation will also be deepened and institutionalised where other issues are concerned, be it in relation to the climate and environment, digitisation or health.

Switzerland can be proud of the ETH Domain – and of its education and research system as a whole. During this extraordinary period, numerous scientists have been enormously committed to the benefit of the general public. The Swiss ERI players have shown that it is worthwhile investing in high-quality teaching, research, knowledge transfer and technology transfer, and respecting the autonomy of these actors – just as politics and society have always done. Many thanks for that!

Zurich/Bern, January 2021

Michael O. Hengartner
President ETH Board