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Published: 14.12.2006, 06:00
Modified: 15.12.2006, 22:06
ETH Debate: Professors criticise the draft Performance Mandate
“The competencies of ETH Zurich are being ignored”

The Swiss Federal Council’s Performance Mandate to the ETH Domain is the central guideline for teaching, research and innovation at ETH for 2008 to 2011. (1) The draft version circulated in the consultation exercise triggered vehement reactions among the ETH professors. Renato Zenobi explains why in this interview. Zenobi, a Professor of Chemistry, is President of the Lecturers’ Conference and at the same time President of the University Assembly.

Interview: Norbert Staub

Professor Zenobi, you have analysed in depth the present draft of the new Performance Mandate for the ETH Domain. As an ETH professor, which aspect of it bothers you most?

Renato Zenobi: For example the document gives the impression that ETH Zurich is rather stagnating compared to EPF Lausanne, and illustrates this with figures. The comparison entirely omits the fact that the growth in Lausanne is attributable at least partly to the transfer of the Natural Sciences from the University of Lausanne to EPF. Moreover, the assignment of the lead agency in projects of national importance seems to be based more on political considerations than on scientific ones.

How does that manifest itself?

In imaging processes or information technologies, for example, where ETH Zurich is left empty-handed in spite of its acknowledged leading position compared to Lausanne. Then there is the question of finance: the effect of the draft is to reduce the stable basic financing in favour of major national projects that are in part poorly defined and lacking transparency. Finally we see the statutorily established autonomy of ETH Zurich called into question in a fundamental way because the ETH Board wants to intervene in operations to a greater extent. On the other hand there is much preaching to the converted.

ETH Debate

In the next few weeks we shall be taking central questions of Institute politics as the topics in the “ETH Life” special heading "ETH Debate”. You can access the heading here:

In what way?

BFor example it is said that teaching should be improved – we are already making great progress with that at ETH. In addition it is said that the ETH Domain should develop a selection process that guides students to a successful final qualification regardless of sex and origin. We already have an excellent selection procedure at ETH. We also operate a pilot project, the Academic and Career Advisory Program (ACAP), to improve the transition from high school (A-Level) to the Institute. So it is unclear what the objective is supposed achieve.

What is your assessment of the basic aims of the Mandate?

That is another area deserving criticism. For example in the objective “Promoting Switzerland’s innovative potential”, the draft text is obsessed with what are called “Centres of competence in areas with a promising future” and on the “Needs of society and industry”. This contradicts the obligation of ETH that it should also and in particular encourage “high risk” research. The benefit of the latter cannot be predicted in the short term but it may be revolutionary in the future. Opinions also differ as to what “promising future” is supposed to mean. There are many such buzzwords and clichés that have no business to be in a Performance Mandate to ETH. What is even worse, in general the scientific importance of ETH Zurich is not adequately portrayed in the paper.

Can you explain that?

We find – and I am now speaking for the “operatives”, the doctoral students, post-docs and lecturers of ETH – that the leading position of ETH Zurich in many fields of research is ignored or even denied to it over broad areas. For example it is incomprehensible that apart from the “SystemX” system biology collaboration, we are not recognized as having the leading house role in many areas despite our leading position in the specialisms.

Chemistry Professor Renato Zenobi, President of the Lecturers’ Conference of ETH Zurich, thinks that the Swiss government’s Performance Mandate to ETH does not give fair consideration to the scientific strength of ETH Zurich.

Where precisely?

That has happened for example with the “Nano-Giga” project in the IT area, which according to the draft is to be led by EPF Lausanne. In this subject area there exists a very similar idea, Quantum-Tera, which originated at ETH Zurich and was also submitted to the ETH Board in 2005 but which, as is now evident, the latter did not take up. The same holds true for the “Biomedical Imaging” Centre (NCCBI): it is clear to everyone that ETH Zurich displays enormous competence here. In the summer of 2006 the ETH Board also decided that the NCCBI would operate as a joint centre. Nevertheless it is stated - in a footnote - that EPFL is the leading house in this case. That is incomprehensible. Another thing: the paper does not even mention the CCEM (Energy and Mobility) and CCES (Environment and Sustainability) centres of competence. However, both are of great importance for Zurich.

Leading house, Yes or No: why is that so important?

Not to hold that position has very material financial consequences. The reason is that in the case of major national projects of this kind, the allocation of third party funds goes 100 percent to the leading house, no matter where the money is used and the work done.

Do you have any other criticisms?

Yes. The draft Mandate gives far too much preference to “top-down” research projects. According to this, the ETH Board should create more centres of competence, leading houses, strategic alliances etc. in order to promote scientific excellence. We find that very problematical. In the first place, new superstructures increase administration costs and such centres are often cumbersome. In the second place the finances needed for this have not been granted in addition but are being taken away from other areas, which then lack them.

So do you think it would be possible to do without competence centres altogether?

I am convinced that bottom-up research ultimately has greater effect. However, as already mentioned, if such combinations are to be created then they should reflect the balance of forces. Now the situation here is that ETH Zurich leads the world in numerous fields. Unfortunately this draft does not do justice to that fact.

Where else do you detect a need for improvement?

In part there is mention of very concrete objectives that are out of place in a strategic document. For example equality of opportunity, an electronic library or an authentication infrastructure. We also entirely disagree with the unwarranted suggestion that the supercomputer centre at Manno, which is attached to ETH Zurich, should be controlled to a greater extent by the ETH Domain. – In summary: the document has serious weaknesses and urgently needs thorough revision.

(1) In this connection see, inter alia, the “ETH Life” report “A wake-up call to the politicians” of 20.10.2006:

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