Zurich’s ETH named world’s seventh best university

Zurich's Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) has been named the seventh best university in the world in the newly released 2019 QS world university rankings.

Zurich's ETH named world's seventh best university
ETH Zurich. Photo: Gian Marco Castelberg/ETH Zurich

This is the highest place ever achieved by the technical institute in the well-regarded table of the world’s top academic institutions.

By coming seventh, the ETH is also the top-placed institute in continental Europe. The top six ranked universities are in the United States and in the United Kingdom.

Read also: ETH researchers develop new 'electronic rescue dog'

MIT, Stanford University, Harvard University and the California Institute of Technology claimed the top four spots in this year’s QS rankings while England’s University of Oxford and University of Cambridge came fifth and sixth.

ETH notched up an overall score of 95.3 out of 100. The institution was ranked in the top 50 for five out of six categories while QS made special note of its exceptionally high score of 98.7 out of 100 for citations per faculty – a clear reflection of Switzerland’s status as a research powerhouse.

In terms of broad subject areas, ETH came fourth globally for Engineering and Technology and seventh for Natural Sciences. At the individual subject area, ETH came top in the global rankings for Earth and Marine Sciences.

Established in 1855, ETH, which has around 20,000 students, can boast famous graduates including Albert Einstein (1921) and numerous Nobel Prize winners.

Nine Swiss universities appear in the QS 2019 rankings, with seven in the top 200. Lausanne’s EPFL dropped to 22nd place after being ranked 12th in 2018. The University of Zurich in 78th place and the University of Geneva in 108th spot.

Despite the EPFL’s drop in the rankings – 2019 is the first time the institution has appeared outside the QS global top 20 – it remains one of the world’s top research institutions, coming 14th for citations per faculty.

Read also: Lausanne's EPFL named 'most international university' in the world


EXPLAINED: How will the post-lockdown tracing system work in Switzerland?

Given there is no Covid-19 vaccine at the present time, contact tracing is believed to be an effective, though complex, strategy for breaking transmission chains and controlling the spread of disease. How will it work in Switzerland?

EXPLAINED: How will the post-lockdown tracing system work in Switzerland?
Research at EPFL will help establish a tracing system. Photo by Fabrice Coffrini / AFP

How does the tracking work?

The process involves identifying contaminated people, so that measures can be taken to prevent the spread of infection on to others.

It is all the more important in cases when the sick person has no symptoms and may not even know they are sick.

Once the infected person is identified, efforts are made to locate and test the people they have been in contact with within the past two weeks. If one of those contacts is found to be infected, the investigation starts again.

Trying to find chains of contamination could be a long process.

What are some of the challenges of contact tracing?

In Switzerland, as in many other countries, the challenge is to establish an effective tracking system, while respecting data protection.

Since mobile phones would be used, various technical and legal questions could arise, particularly on the collection and use of data.

In Switzerland, to process this information in the context of the pandemic, either the consent of the individual or an anonymisation of the data is required.

READ MORE: Swiss scientists launch a new app to collect Covid-19 data 

What tools will Switzerland be using for post-confinement contact tracing?

One possibility would be the tracking by GPS of mobile phones, as already implemented in a partnership between the federal government and Swisscom. This method allowed the authorities to monitor the public to see if they complied with the restrictions related to going out and traveling during the Easter holidays. 

But the government is now supporting a brand new project at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and its sister institution, Zurich’s Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule (ETHZ).

Both are working on the so-called D3-PT project, a free downloadable application for mobile phones, which will run on Google’s Android operating system and on Apple’s iOS.

Its goal, according to Edouard Bugnion, professor of computer science at EPFL, is to “break the chain of virus transmission” by identifying new cases and isolating them. If a person is found positive for coronavirus, all the people he has encountered in the previous days will be alerted, so that they can go into quarantine and be tested. 

No exact details or launch date have been released yet, but the Federal Council thinks the D3-PT tracing would work well in Switzerland.

Will this system guarantee privacy?

Until very recently, the two institutions participated in the European research project Pan-European Privacy-Preserving Proximity Tracing, bringing together 130 organisations from eight countries.

But EPFL and ETHZ distanced themselves from this project after realising that user data would not be protected, and went on launch the D3-PT system which, they said, would be more “decentralised and transparent”.