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Talking leadership 36: Jo?l Mesot on having a fruitful dialogue with society

ETH Zurich president discusses building public trust in science, supporting apprenticeship schemes and a downside of Einstein’s legacy

July 26, 2022
Jo?l Mesot, president of ETH Zurich
Credit: ETH Zurich

Many academics were forced by the pandemic to work more intimately with politicians than they had ever envisioned. Suddenly thrown into the cut and thrust of politics and the idiosyncrasies of government, it wasn’t always plain sailing.

In Switzerland, two academics from ETH Zurich led the government’s national task force for Covid-19, and 10 more took active roles. The experience was an eye-opening one for the university’s president, Jo?l Mesot, who tells 91原创 what he learned from the process, and why he thinks it is vital that universities interact more with society.

At times the situation was fraught, Mesot says. “When you start something like this in a crisis time, then first you need to find a common language, then you have to have very clear procedures, [such as] who speaks when. Of course, we learned in the process, but there was a lot of tension.”


THE Campus views: We’ve forgotten how to communicate science to the public at a crucial time


Trust was not readily proffered. “In a time of crisis, it’s very difficult to establish a very strong dialogue where trust is on both sides,” he says.

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Mesot concluded from the experience that there must be discourse between academics and society at all times, not just during a crisis, and that it needs to be conducted at three levels.

The first level is with politicians, which is where Mesot himself is involved personally. The second is with government administrators, because “this is where all the laws are prepared”. At both these levels, communication should be strengthened so that when crises occur, the common language is already established. The last level is with the general public. It is this one that gives Mesot sleepless nights.

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Believing in science

The involvement of scientists in the government’s decision-making during the pandemic was not welcomed with open arms by all. A section of Swiss society questioned whether they should participate at all. “It was a very hot debate,” Mesot says.

The pandemic, and in particular Covid vaccines, cracked open the fault lines between those who trusted the science and those who did not. “This is not a small percentage, it’s a two-digit percentage that’s growing, who just don’t believe in science. So how do we communicate better? How do we explain what we do? That’s something that needs a constant flow of exchange.”

And what’s behind this growing distrust? Many people identify social media as the culprit, but for Mesot it is the dizzying rate of change in the world that is making people feel insecure. “Even at ETH, you have people – researchers, professors – saying it’s just changing too fast. So imagine for people who don’t have our level of education,” he says. “Some people are just lost.”

A further factor in Switzerland is the country’s decentralised democratic system. “We have built this country in such a way that we vote on everything. And so the people have a lot of power. For example, if 100,000 people’s signatures are gathered, you can make a new law, you can change the constitution. And it comes really bottom?up.”

It is a “beautiful political construct”, he says, but the downside is that during crises, when a government needs to make speedy top-down decisions, people become fearful and rail against directives.

Mesot gives the example of the Covid-19 contact tracing app that ETH Zurich developed with ?cole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, the first such app to reach both Apple and Android smartphones. The app was a failure. Not because of the technology, but rather because people did not trust it and so did not use it; they feared that their personal information would be sent to government officials. To Mesot, this case helps to demonstrate that technology and science are no longer sufficient to tackle wicked problems, and that universities must also play a role in ensuring that advances are embraced by society.

Such distrust of science will overlap with other impending problems the world must navigate, he believes. “I?think we are entering a time where we have to cope with crises. They come and they don’t go, and the next one is coming. So everything is topping up.”

In Switzerland, the next crisis on the list is likely to be access to energy, Mesot says. Many of Switzerland’s energy contracts are coming to an end in the next few years, and the terms of new ones are likely to look drastically different. “It might be that we have next winter a very difficult situation where there will be a blackout.” Scientists from ETH Zurich are already becoming involved in energy strategy discussions.

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If academics do not find a way to communicate what is going on and how science and technology can help to provide solutions, then “it’s going to be extremely complicated”, Mesot says. Society is on a path to polarisation, dialogue is breaking down, and consensus is harder to reach, he believes. “We have seen this in several countries. And we observed this happening in Switzerland. So I think it’s not only about Switzerland, it’s about democracy in general,” he says. “Probably our democracies are endangered.”

Dangerous narratives

One strand of modern anti-science rhetoric is anti-elitism: the notion that those in charge cannot be trusted, no matter their credentials. It’s an almost impossible narrative to counter. As the force behind furthering knowledge and educating future leaders, can universities ever get away from that association? No, Mesot says. “This is the essence of what we are.” But universities can work harder to show how they benefit society.

Something that Switzerland is doing well, which other countries could learn from, is vocational training, he says. The country’s apprenticeship system is strong, and Mesot is working on bringing it and higher education closer together.

ETH Zurich has about 200 apprentices, distributed across departments, who are learning to operate technical equipment used for research. “The synergies are really nice to see because the researcher benefits from the high quality of these technicians. And they benefit on the connection with the researcher.” He plans to extend this further and would like to see more apprentices spend some time at universities.

Mesot also makes the point that having low tuition fees plays an important part in ensuring that universities are not perceived as out of reach (the tuition fee at ETH Zurich is SFr750 (?640) per semester).

Yet even with ETH’s modest fees, he is concerned that the number of students who are the first in their family to attend university is shrinking (Mesot himself was the first in his family to graduate). He suggests that the barrier that puts them off is less a financial one than it is a perception that higher education is beyond their capabilities and is not not for them. ETH Zurich has tough first-year exams. To try to counter this, university faculty are now visiting schools to meet potential future students and to encourage them to apply.

They often encounter misconceptions on such visits, Mesot says, and surprisingly, one can be laid at the feet of Albert Einstein, who has contributed to an image of physics as a theoretical, non-practical pursuit. “I’m a?physicist. It’s interesting to see that the image that people have of physics is so strongly influenced by Einstein – who was an ETH alumni by the way – but this is not what physics is. Physics can be extremely hands-on,” he said. “There is this discrepancy between what they think it is and what we really are.”

As part of this effort to bridge the gap between what people think the university and its community of academics are and what they really are, ETH Zurich has started a training programme for scientists to help them communicate with wider society.

For Mesot, closing the gap between academics and the general public is vital for tackling the world’s biggest problems. “This is about the future of democracies.”

rosa.ellis@timeshighereducation.com


This is part of our “Talking leadership” series of 50?interviews over 50?weeks with the people running the world’s top universities about how they solve common strategic issues and implement change. Follow the series?here.

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