Published: 08.03.11

“That’s a strong signal”

The EU Research Commission has included two showcase pilot projects with strong ETH Zurich participation in the final round to decide the award of hundreds of millions of Euros. It’s an open race clear who will hit the research jackpot in 2012.

Interview: Peter Rüegg

The projects being discussed are not just big, they are huge. And they require substantial funding. From 2013 onwards, the EU Research Commission plans to support two major European projects, so-called FET Flagship Projects, with up to one billion Euros each. 26 consortia submitted applications. The Commission has now determined six pilot projects: FuturICT, Graphene, Guardian Angels, the Human Brain Project, Individualised Medicine, and Robot Companion. ETH Zurich is the co-leading house of both, FuturICT and Guardian Angels. The six project consortia receive about 1.5 million Euros to develop a detailed plan, Based on these proposals, the European Commission will choose two winners in 2012.

Mr. Siegwart, the Tages-Anzeiger newspaper reported that Switzerland is in the race for billions from the EU’s research funds. This sounds very promising.
It really does involve very large European research projects and consortia, in which Switzerland is playing a central role. Of course only part of the funding will effectively flow into Swiss research institutions. In the case of the EU research flagships, one speaks of 100 million Euros per year over a period of ten years. Part of it coming from the involved countries through matching funds.

What does it mean for you and for ETH Zurich that Switzerland is at the forefront in this?
We can be incredibly proud that, from the 26 proposals, six were chosen in which four involve Swiss institutions. Of course, we are also very proud that together with the University College London, ETH Zurich runs the number one project, FuturICT, and, together with EPFL the number three project, Guardian Angels. These are areas in which ETH Zurich has already invested for a long time, because it recognised at an early stage that these address future-oriented scientific questions. However, it also confirms that we have excellent researchers who develop and promote grand visions and, furthermore, can inspire others to make them come reality. These projects are a great opportunity for us. They are “Man on the Moon” projects, through which mankind will get a big step forwards.

The scientists have been holding back on this up to now. What do you think of the fact that the daily press already discusses the preliminary stages of the projects?
I have nothing against the fact that this great success has already been articulated. It is very pleasing that three of the six projects have a very strong Swiss contribution, and a further project still a significant one. It’s a sign that Swiss research is in very good shape and is doing excellent science. The Swiss share of the selected projects is really disproportionately large.

Where does this scientific excellence come from?
I am convinced that we do research in the right way, namely bottom-up. We try to appoint the best people at ETH Zurich and we give them a high degree of autonomy. In fact, the researchers themselves are best qualified to define what the grand challenges of the future are. I am definitely of the opinion that this approach works best. This becomes also evident for these major EU projects, now. Politically motivated research programs do usually not function so well.

Where do the funds for these research projects come from?
A large part of the funding will be provided by the EU Research Commission itself, and a further share is expected to come from matching funds of the federal partner states and of participating research institutions. So if, in an extreme case, Switzerland were to get two such major projects, it would also have to make its own contribution to them. However, the details of the allocation formula are currently still discussed in Brussels.

According to which criteria were the projects selected, and what is your task in this process?
This success is based on the excellence of the proposed research, which was assessed by leading international experts. It is solely a question of the scientific quality of the proposed research program. Fortunately that applies to all EU projects up to now. Due to the large size of the flagship projects,, however, one must also take strategic and financial aspects into account. This involves me to a certain extent, for example in supporting the project leaders.

What does this support look like?
One main task now is to strengthen the project teams so that the preliminary projects lead to successful flagship proposals. The purpose of the support is to strengthen further, what is strong already. We also have the EUResearch Team, which supports the researchers in issues of administration and project management, while the ETH communication team supports the public communication activities. Subsequently it also matters to establish contacts with additional project partners and to gain support by the various research funding institutions in Switzerland. However, the main recognition is deserved by the people who have developed the flagship projects. Therefore, I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate them most sincerely to their magnificent work.

Two Flagship Projects with ETH Zurich’s participation

The FuturICT project is led by the two scientific powerhouses ETH Zurich and University College London, namely by Professor Dirk Helbing and Professor Steven Bishop. This project integrates information and communications technologies (ICT), complexity research and social sciences to create nothing less than a model of our Planet Earth. Its main result will be the “Living Earth Platform”, on which enormous amounts of data will be stored and processed. Based on these data, the researchers want to understand human societies. The plan is to develop models, which can be used as a basis to reveal consequences and side-effects of human decisions and behaviors. This would eventually create a “policy wind tunnel”, a virtual world to explore possible futures and to support better decision-making. One goal of the Living Earth Platform is to discover advance warning signs of imminent crises. For FuturICT, the researchers will establish a computer network powerful enough to simulate global techno-socio-economic systems.
On the other hand the “Guardian Angels” project is aimed at developing and applying autonomous systems made of sensors and information-processing chips that can do without external energy sources. The Leading Houses ETH Lausanne and ETH Zurich are attempting to develop intelligent autonomous systems that draw their energy from alternative sources such as the sun, body heat or movements and vibrations. It will be necessary to achieve technological breakthroughs both in the micro- and nano-technology areas for extremely small energy consumption and in the area of so-called energy harvesters, and, energy storage devices for greatly improved efficiency. For example, the plan is to develop sensor networks that monitor various bodily functions and the close personal environment. The project coordinators are Adrian Ionescu, Director of the Nanolab at EPFL, and Christofer Hierold, Professor of Micro and Nanosystems at ETH Zurich. The technologies and systems developed in this way will also help make a massive reduction in the energy consumption of computers compared to present-day models, thus enabling new and hitherto unknown applications.