"In research, you need a sense of daring"

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"It would be a mistake to focus only on research where we know the outcome." ©Alain Herzog/EPFL

Doris Leuthard, head of Switzerland’s Federal Department of the Environment, Transport, Energy and Communications, takes a hands-on approach. She rarely misses an opportunity to get personally involved, whether to attend the unveiling of NeighborHub in Fribourg in late April or to take part in the Forum des 100 conference on mobility at EPFL’s Dorigny campus. We spoke with her about the latest challenges in transport, energy and communication - three core areas of research at our school.

What impressed you about NeighborHub?

The whole project fascinated me. I learned about it after the Swiss team’s "famous" victory in Denver, and had the honor of taking Germany’s president on a tour of the building during his visit to Switzerland. NeighborHub’s success shows that a cross-disciplinary approach can be highly effective for resolving complex issues - and that such an approach is one of the strengths our country can leverage. The project brought together experts in fields ranging from energy and ecology to design, mobility and even food production. The project also shows the added value in bringing together EPFL, the University of Fribourg and the University of Applied Sciences and Arts. Each one added essential skills and experience to the project.

How can this type of research initiative help foster progress in your department’s areas of focus?

Every field of research has not only its own body of knowledge, but also its own methods. This type of cross-disciplinary approach can bring fresh ideas to discussions that experts from the same field might have among themselves. Also, we’re interested in tangible results, and that’s something NeighborHub delivers. We can market the building and integrate it into our society. This is the kind of initiative that can help effect change.

What advice would you give to the current generation of students?

That they need to take a proactive role if they want to advance their fields. According to EasyPark’s Smart Cities Index - which ranks cities according to criteria such as mobility, sustainability, energy, quality of life and digital infrastructure - Zurich comes in fourth place and Geneva, ninth. So we’re not on top, and still have progress to make in the areas that today’s youth are concerned about.

How important is the research done by Switzerland’s specialized universities for public policymakers?

You are our gems! You do excellent work that bolsters our country’s economy and global reputation. The Federal Institutes of Technology in Lausanne and Zurich are ranked among the best universities in Europe. You drive innovation and are at the forefront of the latest developments. For us it’s very important to stay updated on what your researchers are doing - what international projects they’re working on. We need to bring initiatives like NeighborHub out into the spotlight. They harbor useful new technology that should be shown and promoted to small businesses and society in general. Our talks with universities are a source of inspiration for us and point the way forward, including in terms of funding.

Transportation - especially by air - isn’t exactly good for the environment, but people today are traveling more than ever. What are your priorities for responding to this growing need? Planes, trains or automobiles?

I believe it’s dangerous to set priorities for specific means of transportation. Today’s lifestyles are shifting towards multimodal systems, and that trend is set to accelerate. Our strategy is to identify investment opportunities in various forms of transportation and infrastructure based on their environmental impact, energy use and the number of people they carry. Trains are clearly the best choice for long-distance travel, but when it comes to visiting other countries, flying is an inexpensive, quick and easy solution. All we can do there is question whether those low fares are appropriate or disconnected from the market. And there are the issues of CO2 emissions and the use of kerosene-based versus gasoline-based fuel.

Switzerland is behind other countries such as Norway when it comes to electric vehicles. Do you have any measures planned to encourage EV use?

We do fairly well when compared with other European countries. Norway clearly comes out on top, but that’s thanks in large part to subsidies - something we want to avoid. Our country’s car importers have set themselves the target of having 10% of new cars be electric by 2020 [the figure is currently 0.4%]. We could do more, but that would depend on three key variables: the vehicles’ range, their cost - which is increasingly in line with that of standard cars - and our country’s charging station infrastructure. We are in the process of building that infrastructure, but we need the support of cantonal and municipal governments as well as the private sector. The Swiss Federal Roads Office is encouraging the installation of charging stations at highway rest stops. For now, electric cars in Switzerland are exempt from taxes and duties, except for the highway pass. But given that these cars are driven on our roadways, it would make sense to eventually ask their drivers to contribute to the cost of maintaining those roadways. However, the timing for that is still very much up in the air.

Doris Leuthard during one of her visits at EPFL, in 2013. ©Alain Herzog/EPFL

How do you feel about self-driving cars’ Do you think they could help alleviate traffic congestion and bottlenecks?

I’m not sure if they could be part of the solution, but I do know that the technology is advancing at a rapid pace. In any case, those cars still need road infrastructure, so that doesn’t change our plans or investment objectives. It will be interesting to see the day when all cars on the road are autonomous. But in the meantime, as long as there’s a mix of driver and driverless cars, that won’t change traffic flows, speeds or safety. Plus there’s a number of legal and ethical issues that still need to be sorted out.

This summer EPFL students will compete in the Hyperloop competition. Do you see a future for this technology?

I see it as a visionary concept, like Solar Impulse. These ideas typically strike us as eccentric, or even unrealistic, but sometimes we need to think outside the box. Such large-scale programs usually result in many smaller projects that churn out genuine solutions. In research, including at EPFL, you need vision and a sense of daring. It would be a mistake to focus only on research where we know the outcome. We have to push boundaries, conceive the unconceivable. But that’s harder in politics, where we have to be pragmatic.

And how do you feel about the planned underground freight system?

We’ve been behind this project from the start. There are clear benefits to reducing the amount of freight traffic on our national highways, especially if the funding comes from the private sector. The idea seems feasible and I think the costs can be managed. Now it’s up to the project investors to decide - they will have to submit their plans to the Swiss Federal Council since a special law would need to be passed for the project to go through.

The days for nuclear power as we know it are numbered. But Switzerland still has five operating nuclear plants that will need to be decommissioned. Do you think there’s much of a future for careers in nuclear engineering?

Nuclear engineers, physicists and other such experts are still very much needed, and the dwindling appeal of this field is worrying. A nuclear power plant can run for 50 years and takes ten years to decommission, meaning we’ll need qualified personnel for our Leibstadt plant, for example, until 2045. That’s a long career for someone just starting out. But on top of decommissioning, there’s also R&D. We’re still involved in the ITER project because who knows - maybe we’ll see a major breakthrough ten years from now. Not to mention the possible applications in healthcare.

You’ve had a lot of success championing various political issues. Which were you the most enthusiastic about?

Probably Switzerland’s Energy Strategy 2050. That was especially tough in the months right after Fukushima. I asked myself a lot of questions - what should we do? What’s feasible? Do I have the courage to go through with it? To help find the answers, I worked with businesses, cantons and cities, as well as EPFL and ETHZ, which was all extremely interesting. The EPFL and EPFZ scientists did a lot to support us, providing expertise in areas like energy efficiency, renewable energy and economic feasibility studies. As a politician, I often have a hard time getting my head around the technical details, so it was nice to be able to draw on that network. Thanks to their support, I had the courage to stand behind the strategy, knowing that experts have confirmed that our plans are technically feasible. That left me with the political part of the job - getting the various parties, the Swiss parliament and eventually the Swiss people on board.

What do you plan to do after you leave the Swiss Federal Council?

There are a lot of things I’m interested in, but the first thing I plan to do is take some vacation. I promised my husband we’d go on a long trip and get a closer look at the wonders of this planet.

After you go, there could be just one woman remaining on the Federal Council, down from four in 2010. Does that worry you?

Yes, because in politics, as elsewhere, women are underrepresented. I plan to continue to defend women’s issues after I step down from the Federal Council. It’s true that there may be just one or two women on the Federal Council for a while. But I think there is already pressure to change that, especially on the PLR and the UDC which each have two seats. The women are there, but we shouldn’t look only at the federal level; there are also many female political leaders at the cantonal level who could serve on the Federal Council. Parliament just needs to elect them.

1963 Born in the Canton of Aargau
1991 Admitted to the bar
Elected to the Swiss Federal Council
2010 & 2017 Served as president of Switzerland
 Switzerland’s Energy Strategy 2050 approved in a referendum