Science and its social impact

13 September 2023

Excellence Scholar Luca Schaufelberger belongs to a new generation of researchers campaigning for their work to be embedded in society.

ETH Zurich Foundation, Science and its social impact
“Political communication at universities in future should be viewed as part of everyone’s work,” says Luca Schaufelberger.
© ETH Foundation / Daniel Winkler
“Political communication at universities in future should be viewed as part of everyone’s work,” says Luca Schaufelberger.
© ETH Foundation / Daniel Winkler

“As young researchers, we have a responsibility towards society. The knowledge we generate doesn‘t float in a vacuum.” Luca Schaufelberger is a lively conversation partner who picks up a notepad to illustrate his explanations and knows how to break down complex issues. This ties in with his involvement with Reatch, an association that promotes constructive dialogue between science and politics, and whose relevance was highlighted by the recent Corona pandemic and energy supply crises.

For closer scrutiny of AI

The fact that the Excellence Scholar is able to get involved with Reatch alongside his ETH studies is due to the freedom the scholarship gives him. As he sees it, political communication at universities in future should be viewed as part of everyone’s work alongside research and teaching – from doctoral students to professors. It is therefore essential to train researchers in the applicable skills and their understanding of the Swiss political system. Too much information or a lack of target group awareness are common mistakes that researchers make when speaking outside their community. In accordance, Reatch organises bootcamps that offer skills training for researchers. This year‘s camp at ETH Zurich was fully booked.

One of Reatch‘s latest proposals is to establish a monitoring process in the field of artificial intelligence (AI): “AI opens up endless possibilities, but what risks does it harbour? There’s currently a lack of reliable data available to serve as a basis for political decision-making.” The proposal suggests that in order to avoid flying blind, problems such as misdiagnoses or power outages that can be traced back to AI should be reported to a central hub.

A breakthrough in solar cells?

Luca Schaufelberger‘s affinity to politics is no coincidence: his father, a mathematics teacher, was a member of the Zofingen executive board and there was plenty of political discussion at home. Nevertheless, he says quite clearly: “I’m a scientist at heart. I love to solve scientific problems.” It‘s important to Luca Schaufelberger to be able to forge his own path which is why he chose the interdisciplinary sciences degree programme. On this programme, students initially study mathematics with the mathematicians, physics with the physicists and chemistry with the chemists. But in the second year they can already put together their own combination of subjects.

In his Master‘s thesis, the young researcher – who already has several awards to his name – is currently attempting to design new materials on the computer with the aim of increasing solar cell efficiency: “Today‘s solar cells waste energy. Theoretically, for some of the light used, the amount of electricity generated could be doubled. Researchers have been working on this since the 1960s but have always lacked the right materials for their applications. Luca Schaufelberger is now using recently gained understanding of the physical and chemical properties of materials as well as advances in machine learning to identify potential new materials which can then be tested in the lab at a later stage. He plans to continue pursuing his passion for research with a doctorate in ETH professor Kjell Jorner’s Digital Chemistry group.

By the way: if, like Luca Schaufelberger, you like to consider the social implications of scientific innovation, he has a reading recommendation for you: Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang, a science fiction short story collection for anyone interested in how our world works and how it could work.