16 June 2021 | In June 2021, TUM President Thomas F. Hofmann handed over the EuroTech presidency to Martin Vetterli, President of EPFL, who will assume this function until June 2022. Time for the two presidents to take stock and have a glance at the future, all the more as EuroTech is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year.*
Hofmann: These are exciting times. We are celebrating ten years of EuroTech this year. And I think, despite the current corona situation, EuroTech has developed well, without slowing down its activities. I am proud and fortunate to have been the president of EuroTech for the past two years. And now it is your turn, Martin, I am handing over the presidency to you.
Vetterli: Thank you very much, Thomas. Yes, exciting times, and I would like to thank you very much for your two years of presidency. At least one of them was a challenging year, the year of the COVID pandemic. What are your highlights from the last two years?
Hofmann: Probably the most important highlight is the fact that we defined a new roadmap for EuroTech. We gave the Alliance a new and ambitious vision and mission, including concrete goals we want to reach by 2025. We decided to bring the EuroTech education programmes to a new level and have included also new digital formats. We also made major progress in sustainable campus development. We have been learning from each other and taking best practices from one campus to the campuses of our partners. Sharing infrastructures between the partners has been another highlight for me. We enable particularly young scientists from the partner universities to use our facilities. EuroTech thus also serves as a shared research infrastructure platform. And lastly, the fact that we progressed despite the corona crisis, that the crisis did not slow down our activities. We have been creative and continued programmes in education and research, aligned our forces to tackle the challenges we have in Europe, to make Europe stronger, particularly when it comes to technological sovereignty.
Vetterli: Very impressive results and vision indeed. I am curious, since this is the 10th anniversary of EuroTech: At the very beginning, why did you at the Technical University of Munich and at Technical University of Denmark decide to cooperate?
Hofmann: Already at that time we recognised that, if we really wanted to push frontiers, use our resources sustainably, and tackle challenges, for instance in mobility and energy research, in health and nutrition, we had to join forces. These challenges cannot be solved by individual partners, not by individual professors, and also not by individual institutions. It needs networks of collaboration, of trusted partnerships. That is why we entered into a very early alliance with DTU at that time, with whom we shared the same vision and ideas. This first bilateral partnership grew rather quickly into a club of now six really outstanding universities in Europe that hold the potential to make a difference in Europe.
Vetterli: You leave large shoes to fill. To comment on the collaboration: EuroTech is really interesting in the global context. I know the US system very well. I reckon that their universities do not join such partnerships to work together. They are in a tremendous competition among each other, which, at some point, is a weakness when it comes to addressing very large challenges. I think EuroTech with its European model, with its idea to collaborate for the greater good has a unique role to play in the academic landscape worldwide. This I see as a potential for development for EuroTech in the next ten years. Another one lies of course in the challenges we are facing: sustainability, renewable energy, and so on are absolutely critical to fight climate change. They are issues where institutes of technology have a very important role to play. A third point is that the future is the future of our students. In ten years, they will have graduated, they will have started companies, they will be active in research or work in large corporations. It is therefore extremely important that we involve the students right from the start in our thinking about the future of universities. Universities tend to be relatively conservative animals, which is one of their strengths. But of course, we need to be very flexible and innovative in these rapidly changing times. My suggestion is that we try even more than in the past to take our students along, to have them in working groups, in hackathons, to think all together with the wisdom of the crowd about the future of universities in Europe and beyond.
Hofmann: What can we learn from the corona crisis? What measures can we extract from the previous year in order to further promote the exchange of students, of thinking across Europe?
Vetterli: What we learned from the corona crisis is the fundamental importance and value of science. We got a vaccine developed in less than a year. This is something that was unheard of. That was based on basic research, also on start-ups that were very flexible, but also on cooperation between various parties to solve the problems on the vaccine side as quickly as possible. I want to point out the fantastic contribution of Germany with BioNTech, which was one of the providers of the two key vaccines and is a result of basic research and innovation. This shows the importance of universities, of doing basic research, but also of having an eye on having impact on real problems. The importance of being flexible we showed on the EuroTech campuses: We went into online teaching very quickly. We were one of the businesses where digitalisation had a lot of potential, and we realised this potential very quickly. I’m not saying that we want to stay online – we will go back to campus, but we will carry along a lot of the learnings we had from this difficult time. The crisis has improved the way we share material with the students. Learning methods have been transformed, but we have also seen that certain key things like doing collaborative projects, doing lab work, but also brainstorming do not really work on Zoom sessions. And I am of course looking forward to our next meeting with the EuroTech colleagues, which hopefully will be a physical meeting.
Hofmann: I cannot agree more. If you look at Europe as a whole and at all the other university alliances that exist in Europe – where do you see the unique distinction of EuroTech? Would you say there is something we have to strengthen even more to become the number one “change agent” in Europe when it comes to technical universities?
Vetterli: Each of the partners we have in EuroTech shares the vision that institutes of technology are very important because science and technology are so central to society. All our universities are very active in innovation and technology transfer, each in its geographical area – there also we have a lot of alignment. EuroTech is not a traditional association of “old-style” universities, even though some of us have a very long tradition. I am thinking of course of TUM as compared to EPFL, which is a very young kid on the block. But I think we have the same spirit: We are trying to constantly reinvent how we address challenges, how we change the way we teach, how we transfer technology. There, I feel a very strong alignment between all the partners, and I think that is the basic strength of EuroTech.
Hofmann: Looking at the world at the moment, and at how sometimes people think about science – how do you think EuroTech can take its anniversary slogan “Empowering Society” to a new level? Apart from educating the next generation of innovators and scientists, is there anything EuroTech can do to restore society’s trust in science and innovation? Because sometimes I am a bit afraid that many people, who are for example not educated in a university, are even a bit aversive when it comes to technology. I think building that trust is important for a resilient society.
Vetterli: During the COVID pandemic, we have been very involved in addressing the issues that were raised by this crisis. I know, of course, the situation in Switzerland very well, where we have participated in science task forces to advise the government. This was very much appreciated because the government needed expertise. I know this has been the case for our EuroTech partner universities as well. For us as public institutions, this dialogue and close interaction with governments is very natural, and that is one answer to your question. The other one is science communication, reaching out to the broad public, explaining what we do and why it is important, and not staying in an ivory tower, having a very long-term view but ignoring real concerns from citizens. Citizens are paying taxes and are therefore essentially our shareholders. There, I think, we are doing pretty well. Being institutes of technology, having an interest in creating impact through tech transfer, through interaction with industry but also with the government is also in the tradition of our institutions. That we can further develop, I am sure.
Hofmann: Thank you, Martin. I am happy to listen to your ideas and am sure that EuroTech will have a great future, a great year under your presidency.
Vetterli: Thank you very much again, Thomas, for your involvement over the last two years. You did a fantastic job, you gave even more momentum to EuroTech, and I will try to do my best in the coming year to be a valuable successor to your great presidency.
*This written statement is a slightly adapted version of a remote oral conversation, which can be watched in the video. Check against delivery.