Change of perspective

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Gerd Folkers worked to shine a critical light on academic research and call atte

Gerd Folkers worked to shine a critical light on academic research and call attention to the societal context of scientific viewpoints. (Photograph: Florian Bachmann / ETH Zurich)

Gerd Folkers was the first head of Critical Thinking ETH (CTETH) and left an indelible mark on the initiative. After retiring from his professorship last year, he has now handed over leadership of CTETH to the next generation. As one of ETH’s most multifaceted intellectuals, Folkers could always be counted on to hold up a mirror to the scientific community.

Gulliver’s Travels was a story that spoke to him. The protagonist from Jonathan Swift’s nearly 300-year-old classic tale of adventure, who constantly found himself magically attracted to foreign worlds and then boldly set out to explore them, is one of Gerd Folkers’ idols. Whenever Folkers found the time for reflection alongside his lecturing and research duties, the book always offered important food for thought. "The changes of perspective in the book are invigorating, perfectly described and never cease to amaze me," he says. Change of perspective: this is a succinct way to sum up Folkers’ work over the past decade and a half.

Folkers became Associate Professor of Pharmaceutical Chemistry at ETH in 1991, taking up the title of Full Professor in 1994 and researching the molecular design of bioactive molecules and their use in treating cancer and diseases of the immune system. From the beginning, Folkers’ creativity and drive were not limited to his field of expertise. As Director of the Center of Pharmaceutical Sciences Basel-Zurich in the nineties, he advocated for the creation of a digital link between ETH and the University of Basel that allowed lectures to be transmitted in high quality and with the possibility of interaction between the two locations. Folkers’ fusion of two lecture halls in a single digital space was a pioneering technical feat for the time and gave Basel - the pharma research hub of Switzerland - an important boost.

From scientist to science critic

Folkers soon made a name for himself at ETH with comments that showed his dedication to taking a critical look at scientific practice. In the early aughts, for example, he led a public event series over two semesters entitled "Debating Science Culture" in which participants debated topics such as scientific falsification, the dependence of research on private industry and the hype about nanotechnology. Folkers, who jokingly called himself the pharmacist of ETH, was often in the spotlight when it came to eloquently emphasising the societal context of scientific views or reflecting on the meaning (and sometimes the absurdity) of academic research.

So it hardly came as a surprise when Folkers embraced a personal change of perspective in 2004 by becoming Director of the Collegium Helveticum, the transdisciplinary think tank jointly run by the University of Zurich, ETH Zurich and the Zurich University of the Arts. The move took him from the world of basic drug research into the role of a highly visible researcher who opened up new horizons for academia by bringing different disciplines together and allowing them to interact organically. As Director of the Collegium, he shaped its evolution from a graduate school for young researchers into an institute that brings together professors from three universities and different fields of research. The academics sign up for a multi-year period of dedicated research on a particular topic - for instance, "Reproducibility, Prediction, Relevance" - which was coordinated by Gerd Folkers until the end of his term in 2015.

A critical and pioneering thinker

When Lino Guzzella, the Rector of ETH who would later serve as President, was looking for someone to represent the university’s new critical thinking initiative from 2012 on, Gerd Folkers was also the natural choice for this role. Folkers had come to embody the broad spirit of scientific self-reflection like no one else at ETH. "Critical thinking can’t just be mandated. It’s a fundamental requirement for scientific quality," he explains. "You need to be able to develop critical thinking as an attitude, so it’s something that mainly needs to be integrated into the curriculum."

According to Folkers, a certain amount of fumbling and seeking - including missteps - is regarded as inevitable in the humanities. When it comes to the natural sciences, however, he has observed a growing trend around the globe, in particular in the modern biomedical field: with massive funding comes the tendency to avoid risk and to overemphasise the usefulness of research projects - at the cost of creativity. Folkers believes that this development must be counteracted and is optimistic in this regard - at least about what ETH can contribute. "Our university has always been known for its independence and lack of tolerance for anything but the highest quality. This is a big part of why ETH has an excellent reputation," he says. True to form, Folkers finishes his thoughts with a fresh perspective: "I hope that ETH sticks to its values despite all the pressures from outside. This might mean forgoing some short-term gains, but it’s the right path to success over the long term."

Norbert Staub