ERCIM News No.27 - October 1996
Erwin Engeler, President of SGFI, the Swiss Society for the Advancement of Computer Science and its Applications


The federal structure of Switzerland and its cultural diversity - enriching as both are in many important respects - have made it impossible to create a national research institute for computer science. I am not altogether unhappy about this, because I'm aware of the dangers of stagnation of personnel and ideas within a state-run institution. The challenge has been to create something in its stead. Fortunately, computer science can be pursued on a distributed basis via electronic communication, and so our answer has been to try and form a virtual laboratory. The Swiss Society for the Advancement of Computer Science and its Applications ('Schweizerische Gesellschaft zur Förderung der Informatik und ihrer Anwendungen' or SGFI) comprises essentially all institutes or departments of Computer Science at Swiss Universities and a few corporate organisations. We were fortunate in gaining the support of the Swiss government for the society's creation and organisational financial support.

While the Swiss contribution to science in general and to computer science in particular is well regarded internationally, some people fear that our non-membership in the European Union risks putting Switzerland on the sidelines when it comes to the generation of and participation in European Research Projects. Our government is hard at work negotiating full European involvement; but negotiations have proved difficult and, in the meantime, research does not stand still.

My own enthusiasm for international research collaboration is somewhat tempered by the realisation that the return on invested time and administrative effort is often meagre: there is a limit to the number of meetings one can profitably attend, the number of provisional papers that one is willing to apply oneself to, the ratio of acceptance/rejections of proposals one is ready to accept in the face of opaque criteria, etc.

Science policy, including that of ERCIM, should try to find the right balance between subsidiarity and initiative. I am aware that research initiatives are politically easier to establish if they can be dressed up as contributing to politically pressing problems, such as the relation between high-tech and unemployment, or the creation of (electronic) markets for small and medium size companies. In these and other problem areas, computer and information technologists are obviously challenged. Subsidiarity, if wisely managed, provides the long-range basis on which truly innovative initiatives can be founded.

I see ERCIM's role increasingly as that of a broker between the realities of such challenges and the creative spirit of the scientifically trained. I have great hopes in the development of manageable forms of 'intelligence': intelligent control of flexible processes, eg in small to medium scale manufacturing, intelligent access, filtering and handling of enormous data resources, intelligent interfaces for fail-save uses of automated equipment by untrained personnel, to name just a few. Brokering would mean providing means and encouragement for both initiatives and basic explorations. In this sense, SGFI will continue to valorize its membership in ERCIM and participate in the exchange of ideas and personnel with other consortium members.

For further information on our organisation and activities readers of ERCIM News are invited to look in at our web site:

Erwin Engeler

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