What will endure?

Illustrations: Stephan Schmitz

Illustrations: Stephan Schmitz

The end of the pandemic is still not in sight, but we have every reason to be hopeful. How has the first year of living with the virus changed ETH? And what will endure after the crisis ends?

I only briefly experienced what ETH was like before the pandemic. The first coronavirus measures were imposed by the Swiss Federal Council about a month after my first day of work. And it was on that very day in March when the "extraordinary situation" was declared that I turned 25. I remember sitting in a Zurich park with some friends. The mood was subdued and the situation was difficult to get your head around. It feels as though the first year of the virus has flown by: with life having lost some of its everyday rhythm, as if all the days have been rolled into one. And yet, these days have changed us all. Lots of people are having to contend with increased pressure in their professional or private lives. At the same time, the crisis has raised countless questions for everyone collectively. One of those is: "What will we take forward with us when it ends?"

ETH has a particular responsibility to bear in this situation. As a leading university, it is helping to tackle the crisis through its research, but - bearing in mind its thousands of staff and students - also has to learn from the crisis and come up with innovative solutions for the future worlds of work and teaching.

The side of ETH that the public sees most clearly during the crisis is its research. ETH members are responsible for calculating the notorious R number, working out the ICU bed occupancy rate, assessing how people feel about the economy or determining the mobility of the population. In this way, they are helping to guide us through the uncertainties of the situation. But, conversely, how has the crisis changed the nature of research at ETH?

Solidarity and innovation in research

Stories about pandemic-related research projects are taking up a lot of space in the media. Could this reflect an imbalance in research that exists in reality? Although coronavirus-related topics dominate public discourse, Detlef Günther is confident in refuting this as far as research activities at ETH are concerned. Professor Günther, Vice President for Research at ETH, has the following to say: "The entire breadth of our fundamental research has remained apparent to me throughout. And that is not going to change in the long term either." Specifically, he cites data science, nutrition, medicine and energy, stating that all of these will remain key focus areas. Even the funding awarded over the past year has gone to projects from a wide variety of fields. "Nevertheless, research into every aspect of pathogens is certainly going to become more significant in the future," Günther says with conviction.

In any case, there has traditionally always been a strong connection between the natural sciences and medicine: even before the pandemic, around a third of ETH researchers were either directly or indirectly investigating questions of a medical nature.

The key point for Günther is that the importance of synergies has become even more striking. He explains that the crisis has encouraged discourse between all disciplines and spawned some innovative collaborations. These research projects have often been launched very quickly indeed. One example is the CoV-ETH study that is looking at the immune response to COVID-19 infections. This is being led by three ETH researchers from three different academic departments. The collaboration came about as a result of the extraordinary situation, confirms project co-leader Susanne Ulbrich: "We didn’t know each other beforehand but wanted to work together to help build an understanding of the spread and behaviour of the virus within the ETH community." So far, around 2,900 subjects have participated in the study, which was launched just a month and a half after the start of the first lockdown, thanks in part to a high level of solidarity: "ETH members from every possible area have generously provided us with advice and practical support. Experiencing that has been very rewarding."

Detlef Günther stresses that this openness is something that we must take forward with us after the coronavirus crisis ends: "Unconventional, interdisciplinary research initiatives are more important than ever when it comes to tackling the major problems of our age." And perhaps digital communication can help us with that, now that it has become even more firmly established. Although communicating with colleagues exclusively through a screen can be gruelling, platforms like Teams and Zoom do represent an opportunity, especially for international cooperation in research. According to Günther, another area with potential is rapid data exchange. "There may now be a greater awareness that you can accomplish something truly momentous by pooling the data obtained," he says.

Risks and opportunities in teaching

It is for the sake of students, in particular, that Günther is hoping for the end of the pandemic. Studying used to involve study groups, informal meetings and even parties - none of which can be digitalised. Other critical issues are student mental health and the home learning/working situation. This was revealed by a student survey that the Educational Development and Technology administrative department conducted in mid-December 2020. Well over half of the students surveyed rated their ability to concentrate and their motivation lower than during a normal semester and also reported feeling depressed more often. New students at both Bachelor’s and Master’s level are the ones who feel the least socially integrated.

The survey clearly showed students’ preference for courses and events that offer ways to interact. These include breakout sessions, polls or the chance to ask questions via the chat function. The thing that respondents appreciated the most was having their webcams enabled, particularly when the sessions were small. "At least some of that sense of belonging can be preserved," says Sarah Springman, Rector of ETH Zurich. Designing the digital teaching programme should also be a learning process for the lecturers: "Each member of teaching staff should design their distance teaching to suit their own personal style and experiment with new approaches to make it as lively and engaging as possible."

The coronavirus crisis may actually have triggered some positive developments in university teaching that are here to stay. In the future, hybrid teaching could well become the norm, i.e. a blend of face-to-face and digital teaching that combines the best of both worlds. The majority of students are in favour of partially digitalising the teaching. In the survey, around 80% of participants said that they could imagine having at least one day of remote teaching a week going forward. Springman believes that there is further potential here for joint degree programmes. Virtual modules could be offered within this context to allow students from several different universities to attend them at the same time.

The future working environment

The crisis has also created risks and opportunities for ETH staff. For many, being forced to work from home leads to increased stress. To combat this, Human Resources has been supporting staff and managers through coaching and counselling. Recognising that mental health and physical fitness were becoming hot topics, the Executive Board responded with a series of four virtual town hall meetings. While the administrative staff at ETH enjoy a high level of job security, the academic staff below the level of professor are finding themselves under increased pressure. Doctoral students and postdocs are employed on temporary contracts and their academic careers rely on being able to switch to other universities. The difficult economic situation and travel restrictions have increased uncertainty and made the future look hazy for many of them. From the moment the crisis started, HR has been implementing new regulations to create a framework for solutions that are as flexible and individual as possible. In many cases, contracts have been extended.

According to Lukas Vonesch, Head of Human Resources, the crisis has accelerated a long-term trend: "We have realised that when it comes to home working, the critical issue is not productivity but a sense of community." This is changing how we understand management: "Increasingly, managers are becoming facilitators." To assist with this process, HR has already hosted popular webinars for various groups of managers and professors. Vonesch can easily envisage the physical workplace taking on a new significance as well: "Perhaps, in the future, we will use it more consciously as a space to meet and interact."

One thing is certain: for many, home working is going to remain part of everyday working life. As a result, the requirements concerning work infrastructure are also changing. In December, the Swiss government commissioned the ETH Domain to analyse these impacts and consider changes towards flexible forms of working in light of digitalisation, the changing needs of employees, and the ecological and economic benefits of using space more efficiently. Although the pandemic is not the actual reason for this development, the working situation that we have seen over the past year is likely to accelerate it greatly and will provide plenty of valuable findings to assist with implementation.

We are still very much in the grip of the coronavirus crisis. It is causing a huge amount of damage globally but, at the same time, has opened up opportunities. Responsibility for taking advantage of them lies with each and every one of us. "We have the chance to learn a great deal from the pandemic. But only if every single person is prepared to reflect deeply on both the good and the bad before simply carrying on exactly as before," concludes ETH Vice President Detlef Günther.

This article appeared in the current ETH magazine "life" .

Leo Herrmann

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