New initiatives to bring man and nature into harmony – and the science festival “Bern in Space”: The University of Bern once again had a strong impact in and with society in 2019.
By Prof. Dr. Christian Leumann, Rector
2019 was a very special year for the University of Bern for a variety of reasons. It is with a profound sense of gratitude and appreciation that I would like to take a moment to reflect on some of the university’s achievements.
With the support of Hansjörg Wyss and the Canton of Bern, the Wyss Academy for Nature was founded just prior to the end of the year. After a two-year phase of negotiations and conceptual design work, this extremely successful highlight was a wonderful way to wrap up the year. The research center for nature and people will take an innovative, sustainable and implementation-oriented approach toward its examination of the impact of biodiversity loss, accelerated climate change and growing demand for land resources by teaming up experts from the realms of academia, politics and society.
The University of Bern recognized early on that achievements in the areas of environmental and sustainability research will become increasingly important in the years to come, both from a global and from a regional perspective. In line with that, a research project conducted by the University of Bern on the topic of the “Causes and Consequences of Biodiversity Change” has submitted a proposal to have it established as a National Centre for Competence in Research by the Swiss National Science Foundation. Unfortunately, despite having received a seal of scientific excellence by the Swiss National Science Foundation, the project was not chosen. Even if politicians do not attach any priority (yet) to a topic, it is the University’s job to continue working on issues academics feel are significant. The University of Bern has often been successful with research projects like this, some of which are conducted over the course of several decades, such as climate research (150 years) or space research (more than 50 years). The most recent example of this is Professor Peter Messerli and his team from the Center for Development and Environment, which played a leading role in the UN Global Sustainable Development Report presented in New York in September.
The 2019 winter semester saw us pass the 18,500-student mark for the first time ever. As one of the ten largest employers of the Canton of Bern, we have 4,719 full-time equivalent positions held by 7,357 employees. More than 20 years after it was discontinued, we have now re-introduced the third year of the pharmaceutical sciences degree program and the master's degree program will follow in one year. This move is aimed at helping avert the shortage of pharmacists feared at national level. Spring 2019 saw us commission the new strategic research center for precision medicine, the Bern Center for Precision Medicine (BCPM). There, therapies are developed that are personalized for specific patients – in other words, they are working to develop the medicine of the future. This approach takes a patient’s genetic predisposition, environmental factors and lifestyle into account with an eye to minimizing adverse affects, improving patient outcomes and cutting costs. August featured the grand opening of yet another heavyweight for Bern as a medical location: sitem-insel, the Swiss Institute for Translational and Entrepreneurial Medicine. sitem-insel specifically promotes the transfer of knowledge and innovation from research results to practical applications. The University of Bern is a co-founder and scientific partner of sitem-insel.
We’ve now arrived at some of the other highlights of the past year. The University of Bern took part in the very first moon landing in 1969 and provided the only scientific experiment not to have come from the US: its now famous solar wind sail, which was planted into the lunar sand even before the American flag. Reason enough for the University of Bern to organize a huge celebration to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the moon landing. Representatives of the ESA and NASA, US Ambassador Edward McMullen and countless local partners gathered together with University representatives in scorching heat on Bern’s Federal Square where they “ignited” a rocket to mark the occasion.
The University of Bern then also had the pleasure of – quite literally – igniting a rocket in December: The CHEOPS space telescope, which was built under our leadership on behalf of the ESA, lifted off from the Guiana Space Center in French Guiana on board a Soyuz rocket. This telescope will provide us with new and exciting insights into the world of exoplanets in the years to come.
This year's “Dies academicus” event highlighted our university's achievements from various angles and included presentations by our alumnus and current science director of NASA, Dr. Thomas Zurbuchen, as well as our doctor honoris causa, former Federal Councilor Johann Schneider-Ammann.
Given that the end of every year is followed by the start of the next year, let me take this opportunity to provide a few more details on some of the challenges we’ll be facing going forward. Our building situation is and remains hugely problematic. We urgently need new teaching and laboratory facilities for medicine, natural sciences and veterinary medicine in order to both cover the needs arising through our growing student body and also replace the university’s aging buildings. We were thrilled to have the chance to invite the cantonal education commission (kantonale Bildungskommission; BiK) and the building commission (Baukommission; BaK) to visit us and take stock of the situation on site.
We are also planning to collaborate with the Bern University of Applied Sciences to set up a new university-level master’s and PhD degree program for precision and medical engineering to help alleviate the shortage of skilled workers in this sector of the economy, one which is vitally important to the region of Bern, and make a targeted effort to promote innovation in both fields.
Last year saw us adopt a university-wide digitalization strategy and the focus this year will be on its implementation. Our goal is to prepare students as well as possible for digital transformation. One example of these efforts is the creation of a Campus Mobile app, that is being programmed together with our students.
“We urgently need new teaching and laboratory facilities for medicine, natural sciences and veterinary medicine.”
Prof. Dr. Christian Leumann, Rector
Improving the sustainability of the university’s operations will be a major theme this year. Last year, we started analyzing how our lecturers and students travel and drafted directives designed to reduce the number of flights used. But that’s not enough – we want to go even further and are actually working toward our goal of making the university climate neutral.
In line with this aspiration, this year’s annual report of the University of Bern will be the first to mainly be published through digital channels. I am proud of our university and all its accomplishments and would like to offer my most sincere thanks to our lecturers, staff and students, whose tremendous passion makes this institution such a vibrant, forward looking, highperformance and great place to work and study.