"Never make unsubstantiated promises"

Patrick Aebischer will step down from the EPFL presidency at the end of 2016. In the space of 16 years, he has completely transformed the Lausanne based institution, placing it among the world’s best. We take a look back at his achievements. By Daniel Saraga

(From "Horizons" no. 109 June 2016)​​​

In 2000, the helm of the Ecole polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) was taken up by a complete outsider. Patrick Aebischer was 44 at the time and a professor at the Vaud University Hospital (CHUV). His plan was to introduce life sciences to what is a technical university, to convert it to the American model and to make it more competitive.

This plan quickly ran aground, however. While the faculty, the student body and industry were either rejecting his plans or calling for his departure, Aebischer was being hampered in his attempts to appoint vice-presidents. The ETH Board was against it, and Aebischer had to hold his ground firmly, refusing to start work until the Board gave in at the end of a two-week deadlock.

Some 16 years later he has reached his objectives, and even surpassed them. Today, EPFL is one of the best European research institutions and has a portfolio of high profile projects, ranging from the Human Brain Project and Solar Impulse to the Rolex Learning Center. But Aebischer's style – visionary and proactive – was not free from criticism. Horizons met him this spring to listen to the defence of his vision for academia and leadership.​​​

You started your presidency with an uphill struggle. Were you bluffing?I wasn't allowed to select my own management team.

It was double or quits. I'd have returned to the US if it hadn't worked. I was very clear about my intentions. It's possible the Board thought I'd come around once in office ... but I needed my team to succeed with my plans.

Did this victory provide you with leeway later on?

Yes, obviously. It wasn't an easy conflict to live with, however. There were blows coming from every side, a bit like taking a tumble in a washing machine. It wasn't even the easiest way forward for me either, as I was quite happy with my research position. I'm sure youthful folly also played its part.

You came from another institution and brought with you a background in medicine. Does Switzerland need this kind of concoction?

Yes, it's too scarce. It can bring freedom with it. There comes a time in the life of an institution when serious reform becomes necessary and new lifeblood helps. That said, there are political imperatives for an EPFL president. You have to know the country. As I stood before the parliament, I was told, "You're a Fribourger!" And there I was, returning from the US, thinking I was European if anything, maybe Swiss, but a Fribourger! [laughter]

Your successor, Martin Vetterli, is somewhat more traditional. He's 58 years old and has spent 21 years at EPFL. Is that a problem?

No. There's no reason to change everything every time. At any rate, EPFL is going though a period of consolidation, although I'm not a fan of that word. I hold Martin in very high regard. Next time around, however, the younger generation should take the reins.

What were your three greatest achievements at EPFL?

The tenure track for young assistant professors, the doctoral school and the faculties.

The tenure track means academic independence for young researchers. It gives them the chance to carry out their own research projects and to open new paths. It has completely transformed EPFL.

In the doctoral school, we receive candidacies and shortlist the best. We also ensure competition among the professors by allowing the successful candidates to choose which group they wish to join.

Then there's the faculties. When I arrived there were 12 departments, each with a two-year management rotation. We regrouped them into five faculties and created four-year, renewable deanships. The deans take on great responsibility, including hiring the best teaching researchers.

Despite resistance, you managed to have a large impact. How?

For the first two years, I hardly left campus. I practised walk-around management. I met and personally won over every EPFL professor. I received a great deal of support from those researchers who were familiar with the American system and who understood my plan.

Your revolution at EPFL in 2000 was a success, but Ernst Hafen's at ETH Zurich wasn't. Why was that?

I think all his efforts were correct. What's different is the culture, added to which, our Zurich-based twin has relatively fewer researchers with experience of the US model. It's also a much older institution, making reform considerably harder.

Once again, the American model.

Yes, I was strongly influenced by the culture there. It's a meritocratic system that encourages innovation. There are swathes of Swiss and European researchers working there, many of whom would prefer to be closer to their families, but what they would also prefer is to return to an environment that meets US standards. This is what we have tried to create at EPFL.

In the US, people are very proud to bear the name of their university – we wanted to develop the EPFL brand. When taxi drivers in Lausanne claim to be proud of EPFL, it's a measure of success.

Many industry representatives sit on the EPFL Strategic Advisory Board.

Besides teaching and research, our mission also includes the transfer of knowledge. Our students need to find jobs, and we need to understand the profiles sought by the private sector. Many members of the Board are also financial sponsors of major EPFL projects.

To give you an example, the Innovation Park brings together more than 100 startups and industry mammoths, such as Nestlé, Intel, Peugeot and Logitech.

Our research excellence has to contribute to the economic development of French-speaking Switzerland. I'm happy to note there's been a significant increase in the number of our students launching startups.

Your presidency is associated with private money.

Everybody thought it was impossible to fundraise in Switzerland, but really no one had ever really tried. I spent a great deal of time creating a network. Having been raised in an artistic environment was a great help, as it means I'm at ease with all layers of society.

The idea of sponsored chairs received criticism. Why is there a blocking vote for the chair?

It's natural to grant the company paying for the chair the right to know who's being appointed. If it doesn't agree with the choice, it can withdraw its financing, but it cannot stop the person from being hired. Privately sponsored chairs have the same academic freedom as publically sponsored chairs.

But this is an issue that should first be addressed in the chair's job description.

That's why it's never happened.

You transferred intellectual property rights from joint research to Rolex. Isn't that controversial?

Usually, royalties are negotiated on the basis of granting licences. With Rolex, we transferred them in return for the large sums it was offering to build the Learning Center. They were far greater than anything we could have ever hoped for from royalties. Rolex made it possible to create an indispensable element of today's EPFL.

Switzerland stands above the crowd when it comes to support for basic research. That could be undermined by being too close to industry.

It's vital support. Without basic research, there's no creation of value. Almost a third of our professors have received ERC grants and we're regularly published in the best scientific journals. That's all basic research! Our researchers aren't manipulated by industry; it's the other way around. Companies sidle up to us precisely to avoid the risk of missing the next technological breakthrough.

The growth of EPFL has been built on the success of others, for example, the integration of the Institute of Microengineering (IMT) in Neuchâtel and of ISREC. Isn't it demotivating for other institutions to lose research quality?

We felt a responsibility to take up IMT, because its rate of growth outstripped the financial capabilities of the University of Neuchâtel. The University was later able to reallocate that money to strategic areas. IMT only had four chairs back then, now it has 12. Everybody came out on top. The same can be said for ISREC, whose research was also growing at an unsustainable rate – we must remember that cancer research is expensive.

EPFL is known for trumpeting its flagship projects before having achieved any results, as was the case with the Human Brain Project (HBP) and the Venice Time Machine. Aren't you worried about the backlash that may come if they fall flat?

The HBP was the follow-on from EPFL's Blue Brain, which had already produced enough results to be able to take on board one of the two FET-Flagship Projects financed by the European Union to the tune of a billion euros over a period of 10 years. Two years into the HBP, a major article has already been published in Cell. But you're right on one thing, however. It's difficult for science to predict results along a 10-year timeline. For example, when the Human Genome Project was launched, it promised great things. It actually took longer than expected for its impact to be felt by doctors. Today, not a soul would argue against the need for such a project. I hope it will be the same for the HBP.

Don't you think there are limits to what researchers can promise?

One should never make unsubstantiated promises, particularly in medicine.

Are you sad to leave?

I'll be happy to be a free man. I loved this job, but it's also a never-ending battle against inertia, reticence and litigiousness. What are your plans? What I'd love to do is bring together the worlds of science, technology, entrepreneurship and art. The noteworthy projects will be interdisciplinary and inclusive. Working at the interface of different domains requires breaking down institutional limits, freeing oneself from superfluous administrative restrictions and creating the necessary zones of freedom.

What's the first thing you'll do when you leave your office in December?

We're planning a big Christmas party for everyone at EPFL, during which I will invite Martin [Vetterli, Ed.] to speak. Then I'm headed to Cape Town, South Africa, where I'll embark on a polar expedition organised by the Swiss Polar Institute, a new EPFL project.

Daniel Saraga is Head of Science Communication at the SNSF.

From art to science

Patrick Aebischer was born into a family of artists in Fribourg. He later studied medicine and neuroscience in Geneva and Fribourg before an eight-year stay at Brown University, USA. In 1992, he returned to Switzerland as a professor at the Lausanne University Hospital. In 2000, he took the reins of EPFL, without forfeiting his research, spending one morning a week at the Brain Mind Institute in his laboratory (he actually published 126 articles during his presidency, the latest proposing an implant to fight Alzheimer's disease). He has also founded three startups.

In figures20002015
Number of students4'89910'124
Doctoral students7022077
Ranking (Shanghai/QS)104a70
Startups created (5 years)52b81c
Funds raised by startups (5 years; CHF)100 mb700 mc