"ETHZ attracts the biggest names"

The President of ETHZ, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich, Ralph Eichler, refuses to enter into a rivalry game with EPFL, its counterpart in Lausanne. And he strives to maintain the school’s quality in the face of the rising number of students.

President of ETHZ, Ralph Eichler is the chairman of this year's International Alliance of Research Universities. This network of the top 10 global institutions, including the Universities of Cambridge, Oxford, Berkeley and Yale, focuses discussion on the training of future leaders. Bilan talks to the head of EPFL’s sister institute.


What are ETHZ’s ideal strategic fields?

We excel in architecture, engineering and fundamental science -- physics, chemistry and biology. We want to maintain a broad spectrum of skills and knowledge and establish a solid foundation for our graduates, especially in mathematics. Today, mathematics is a part of all the sciences, from information technology to biology. I am very involved in reinforcing this discipline.


Health is a cutting-edge field at EPFL. Does ETHZ also have projects in this area?

Absolutely. In early 2012, ETHZ founded a new Department of Health Sciences and Technology, which combines movement science and sport, nutrition, medical technology and neuroscience. We also created a center of excellence with the University and the University Hospital of Zurich, along the lines of the cooperation model that exists between Harvard, MIT and Harvard Medical School. One of the projects launched is to develop an artificial heart.


What are some of the latest major innovations at ETHZ?

We are very active in the issues of energy, climate, food and health, as well as the creation of sustainable cities. In 2011, we created the ETHZ Risk Center, whose goal is to take a holistic view of risks in the financial world, nature, technology and governance.

And, in March 2012, ETHZ opened an urban planning laboratory in Singapore. Some 120 researchers are working there with our Singaporean partners. The center is funded largely by Singapore. Switzerland will, thus, be able to train scientists and engineers who can contribute to the development of cities in emerging markets.


We know that the EPFL has established important partnerships, for example with Nestle. What is ETH Zurich’s relationship with the private sector?

For us, too, cooperation with industry is very important. We work with clusters of companies concerning strategic areas. For example, Swisselectric, Holcim, Coop and Bühler are working together on sustainable development, while Google, Microsoft and Swisscom are our partners in the management of complex computer systems and computer security.

Since 2011, we have been operating, with IBM, a nanotechnology research center in Rüschlikon. And Disney has been on our campus since 2008 with a laboratory of animation and computer generated images. This is the only Disney laboratory outside the United States.

Federal contributions for EPFL rose 2.7% in recent years, while the increase for ETHZ amounted to only 1%. What do you think of these figures?

I do not want to get into the competitive game between the two schools. We are partners, and occasionally competitors. The Swiss should be happy to have in each linguistic region an institution of such quality.


There have been 21 Nobel laureates associated with ETHZ, including Albert Einstein. EPFL has still not had one. How do you explain ETHZ’s success?

First, our institution has 158 years of history compared to only 44 for EPFL. ETHZ’s reputation helps us even today seduce the biggest names. Scientists appreciate the freedom of research available to them here, the quality of the students and the infrastructure that we offer. The appointment of new teachers is crucial. So, we are delighted about the imminent arrival of the mathematician Wendelin Werner, recipient of the Fields Medal, the equivalent of the Nobel Prize in mathematics.


The latest ranking of the British magazine “Times Higher Education” puts ETHZ in 12th place and EPFL in 40th. Can ETHZ move up?

We are already among the top ten schools of technology and natural sciences. Of course, I would like ETHZ to improve in the overall rankings. The first places are occupied by American schools, followed by the British. We follow them closely.


In terms of research and the globalized world, do the two Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology have any common characteristics that set them apart from institutions in other countries?

In Switzerland, we have the great good luck to work in stable conditions, with budgets assured over the long term, which is not the case in the United States, for example. In addition, our schools have considerable autonomy from the political authorities. We can define our own research areas where we want to invest.


What are ETHZ’s main challenges today?

Above all, to ensure the quality of services to a number of students that is growing rapidly. They now number 18,000 -- 60% higher today than in 2000. (Ed: EPFL has 8000 students and also a growth of +60% since 2000) However, our budget has not increased by the same proportion. We are doing everything in our power to maintain the quality of education.


Is there a particular project at ETH Zurich that is close to your heart?

An idea that has matured recently is to establish an institute modelled on Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study. This institute would provide the best researchers in the world a kind of “sabbatical” year for research on the topic of their choice. Scientists would have free rein during their stay in Zurich and would interact with our researchers and students. It is clear that such a project can only be achieved with private funds. This idea could be realized in the near future. I am optimistic.

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