Interview: André Schneider
The Vice President for Planning and Logistics at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) discusses the factors of success for this elite school in western Switzerland.
EPFL, HRS, both the Credit Suisse Real Estate Fund Hospitality and Credit Suisse Real Estate Fund LivingPlus, and the federal government have created the new SwissTech Convention Center on the Lausanne campus as part of a Private Public Partnership (PPP). Mr. Schneider, has this collaboration between the public sector and private investors been worthwhile from EPFL's perspective?
This collaboration between the public sector and private investors has been worthwhile for us. It has enabled EPFL to build this convention center – a crucial component of our strategy – in order to better communicate our research initiatives and findings. In this way we are helping a wider audience to understand how important research is and how our findings can improve and change our lives. We are providing a platform for an international exchange between academics and representatives from business. Particularly nowadays, this is incredibly important for a top research university such as EPFL.
What drove EPFL to carry out this project in conjunction with two Credit Suisse real estate funds instead of on its own?
EPFL is often presented with requests for strategic projects that are very important for the further development of the school, but that cannot expect to receive financing from the federal government, however. Since we are only permitted to accumulate very limited reserves, ultimately such projects can often only be carried out with backing from real estate funds as PPP projects. This opportunity is very important for us, in order for us to be able to support our development at the time that it is needed. That is why we are very grateful for real estate funds that support us with strategic projects, such as these two from Credit Suisse.
You are a musician, have a doctorate in IT sciences, are an expert in economics, founded your own consulting agency, and are also a board member at various companies. Aren't you afraid of conflicts of interest?
No. It is obviously very important to set clear boundaries and to clearly avoid being in situations that would make a conflict of interests unavoidable. On the other hand, all my other activities – all of which are in the area of sustainable development – inform my experience in this area, and it is precisely this experience that is important for my work at EPFL and that contributes to our new Institute of Technology and Public Policy. I believe that it is also important that as representatives of an institution like EPFL, we advocate sustainable development in this world, whether in the area of climate change, the green economy, sustainable infrastructures, or sustainable mobility.
Construction of the SwissTech Convention Center and the associated residential buildings for students is now complete, and they were inaugurated in early April 2014 with a large celebration. What is your impression of the new EPFL campus?
The SwissTech Convention Center and the residential buildings for students are meeting important demands and are thus excellent additions to the EPFL campus. Firstly, with its exceptional standing compared to other international universities, EPFL is more attractive to international and doctoral candidates. The new student residences are of the utmost importance given the region's highly strained housing environment. Secondly, a leading institution such as EPFL needs such a convention center as a platform for international communication and the exchange of ideas between academics and the business sector.
What does the ultramodern SwissTech Convention Center mean for EPFL? What opportunities does it unlock that were previously unavailable to you to this extent?
It provides EPFL with a state-of-the-art platform that substantially facilitates international exchange between academics and the business sector directly on our campus.
Nowadays, academia has to present itself and its results professionally. With this in mind, the SwissTech Convention Center is a window to the world. Would you agree with that?
Yes, absolutely. And today, this is even more important than ever.
Never before has a Swiss university received EUR 500 million in research funds from the EU for a single large-scale project. EPFL managed to do this and outdid the rest of Europe's universities with the Human Brain Project. What is it that makes Lausanne better?
I think that it has to do with several factors. First of all, the board of EPFL promoted this project very early on and at a time when many other institutions did not yet believe in the project. Then, EPFL also provided quite substantial staffing and financial support to the project and thus helped the project to attract the right top researchers from the start and to be a major contender. And lastly, the researchers on this project and the board of EPFL understood that such a project needed to be created with multiple institutions – whether in the area of Lake Geneva or internationally. In today's interconnected world, this approach has made it possible to create a global project that involves the best researchers from numerous institutions and enables them to tackle this great challenge together.
The Human Brain Project aims to reproduce a human brain on a supercomputer. What expectations do you have for it, Mr. Schneider?
There are very many expectations and possible results, but the idea here is not to reproduce the brain. Instead, it is to simulate the brain. If I may point out one important expectation in particular: In recent years, it has become increasingly difficult to develop medicine for major disorders of the brain. This is likely also due to the fact that it is very difficult to analyze and understand the interaction between new molecules and the brain. Such a simulation could make it tremendously easier to understand what types of new molecules are needed and to analyze their interaction with the brain. All this before having to conduct any tests on humans.
Together, EPFL and the University of Lausanne form a "city" of 28,000 people – effectively the second largest city in the Canton of Vaud. Has it reached its optimum size yet or is additional growth expected?
The "right" size and the "right" growth are important issues and are continuously being discussed. But one must also understand that we do not have restricted admission for students at EPFL and that thanks to our good competitive standing among international universities, we continue to attract very good students. Over the past few years, we have seen growth of approximately 10%. On top of this, growth continues to be important if we want to continue to remain among the top universities; this also applies to our ability to attract the best new talents at all levels. However, such growth must also be supported by the right infrastructures, hence the discussion of the "right" growth.
You have a positive stance on new forms of educational media that are capable of taking courses from top universities and transmitting them to the most remote corners of the world, particularly online course offerings. Unrestricted education for all – is that your motto?
I would phrase it more like this: open access to the best professors and the best training, and all this for every student in the entire world. Yes, these online course offerings (most of which are massive open online courses, a.k.a. MOOCs) can accomplish this dream, but they also need to be rounded out with local courses offered in areas such as hands-on work and laboratories.
Which research areas do you anticipate will have the most groundbreaking findings in the next ten years?
There will be quite a few. Here are just a few examples: the Human Brain Project with its simulation of the brain, and advanced manufacturing with the virtually limitless possibilities of 3D printing. And finally, the merging of information technology and big data, as well as personalized medicine.
My final question: If you could have one wish granted for EPFL, what would it be?
To continue to advance on the path of success and to keep our role as important pioneers; and to do both despite the new challenges after the vote on immigration.
André Schneider, Vice President for Planning and Logistics
Mr. Schneider has been a member of EPFL's board since August 2013. EPFL has seven schools offering 13 majors and employs approximately 240 professors as well as over 1,600 doctoral candidates. Approximately 9,000 students are currently enrolled. www.epfl.ch
You can find more information on the SwissTech Convention Center here: tstcc.ch
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