Science in the year of the pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic shaped the current reporting period like virtually no other event before it. Maintaining teaching and research activities under the influence of the epidemiological emergency was a major challenge for all institutions of the ETH Domain. Numerous research activities and technological developments in 2020 also focused on combating COVID-19. A multinational scientific network and close links to industry proved once again to be valuable foundations where this is concerned. Providing scientific advice to political decision-makers on dealing with the crisis situation was also especially important in the year of the pandemic.

“Switzerland remains a leading nation in terms of education, research and innovation, taking advantage of digitisation.” With this premise, at the beginning of 2020 the Federal Council passed the Dispatch on the Promotion of Education, Research and Innovation (ERI Dispatch) for the period from 2021 to 2024. It applied for a budget of just under CHF 28 billion for the entire period. In the context of the parliamentary debate on the ERI Dispatch between the summer and late autumn of 2020, the National Council and Council of States also made it clear that they support the idea of ensuring that Switzerland remains one of the world’s leading nations in the fields of education, research and innovation. In view of the extraordinary expenditure approved at the same time for the support measures of the Federal Council due to the coronavirus pandemic, this clear commitment to ensuring that Switzerland remains an education and research hub should be rated especially highly. The visibility which science was given during the crisis and the recognisable significance of strong education and research institutions when faced with unknown and urgent challenges certainly also played a role here.

ETH Zurich Campus Centre
From mid-march 2020, the ETH Domain also switched to emergency mode. Here the ETH Zurich's Zentrum Campus. Photo: Nicola Pitaro/ETH Zürich

Teaching and research under the influence of the COVID-19 virus

The switch to completely digital lessons was successfully implemented at ETH Zurich and EPFL following a smooth and very short transitional period. The policy of encouraging digital teaching methods like “flipped classrooms”, which had already been in place for an extended period, made a significant contribution to the efficient organisation of distance learning (see p. 51 f.). Within a very short space of time, researchers also reacted to the occurrence of the new COVID-19 virus and launched numerous projects. Within the ETH Domain, these include, for example, research projects on possible vaccines, ventilators, equipment for test procedures, masks or detecting viruses in waste water (see e.g. p. 14 and 66). Researchers from the ETH Domain are also involved in the national research programme entitled NFP 78 “Covid-19”, which was launched at the end of April 2020, where they are working on several projects.

What Martina Hirayama, State Secretary for Education, Research and Innovation, emphasised in summer at the informal EU ministerial meeting on research and innovation applies in this respect: bottom-up research based on excellence has the potential to provide rapid and innovative responses to crises. She also pointed out that cross-border cooperation and facilitating an exchange of ideas between researchers are key factors in a joint response to crisis situations such as that of the coronavirus pandemic.

Global crisis – international research

The fact that research on the COVID-19 virus within the ETH Domain also has an international dimension goes without saying. The development of the Swiss-Covid app is a good example of this. SwissCovid, the official app of the Federal Council, is – together with contact tracing and systematic testing – an important measure for combating the COVID-19 virus. Assistant Professor Carmela Troncoso, from EPFL’s Security and Privacy Engineering Laboratory, is one of the leading brains behind the application. She worked in a quickly formed, interdisciplinary team which had all the necessary skills. It comprised over 30 researchers from different institutions in eight European countries.

The good European and international cooperation is based on long-standing relationships and networks. Research programmes like Horizon Europe make a significant contribution to creating and expanding them. For the ETH Board and the institutions of the ETH Domain, full association with the European Union Framework Research Programmes for the period from 2021 to 2027 is of key importance. Even in the reporting period, the institutions of the ETH Domain once again successfully secured ERC grants in the context of the current Horizon 2020 programme (see p. 54).

In addition to Horizon Europe, the European Union also plans another edition of the Erasmus education programme from 2021 onwards. International cooperation and mobility in education contribute to the excellence and competitiveness of the Swiss education system and are given a high status by the ETH Board. It is therefore calling for full association with the Erasmus programme for the period from 2021 to

From research to practice

During the crisis, it also became especially clear how valuable the close partnership with industry is which the institutions of the ETH Domain have built up over the years. The transfer of knowledge and technology
is a keyword where this is concerned. Against the background of the pandemic situation, researchers from Empa, ETH Zurich and EPFL succeeded within a very short space of time in developing innovative mask concepts for efficient protection against viruses and technologies for reusing protective materials in the context of the Innosuisse reMask project. They cooperated with Spiez Laboratory and a national consortium with representatives from the healthcare sector and industry. The approximately 50 industrial partners involved prove in an impressive way just how comprehensive the joint effort was.

Even where other areas of innovation are concerned, it is possible to state that cooperation with businesses was successful in 2020. For instance, a similar number of patents, licences and cooperation agreements were reported as in the previous year and and there was even a new record with 66 spin-offs foundations. The above-average success of such spin-offs and the high number of jobs created as a result were proven in the reporting period by a study conducted by the University of St.Gallen (see also p. 18).

Dialogue between scientists and politicians

One important contribution of science was ultimately in establishing the Swiss National COVID-19 Science Task Force. It supports the political authorities and decision-makers by providing them with information on which to base their decisions from the perspective of academics and researchers. The foundation of the Task Force had been proposed in March 2020 at the initiative of scientists and with the involvement of the ETH Board after there had been an exchange among researchers at an early stage and they wanted to contact politicians. Responsible science includes getting involved in the political negotiation process in an advisory capacity. At the same time, the different roles must be clearly defined. The Task Force is an independent expert panel which makes scientifically sound recommendations.

One of the basic principles of science lies in constantly questioning answers and solutions and developing them based on the latest findings. Mutual understanding for the different roles and working methods of scientists and politicians forms the basis for effective cooperation. In this sense, the current crisis is also a learning field, in order to establish a good form of exchange and to create a basis of trust for dialogue with a view to dealing with other issues and future crises. The issues of national and global importance where scientific expertise is highly relevant in aiding policy-making certainly include climate change and sustainability. The ETH Domain also wants to get deeply involved in this area and make its contribution.