Distinguished researcher Niklaus Zimmermann is stepping down from the Directorate after almost 15 years' service. Over that eventful period he has made his mark on WSL with his unerring commitment to a scientific approach to research and implementation.
Niklaus Zimmermann is the longest-serving member of the WSL Directorate, having been elected by the ETH Board during a complete reorganisation of WSL in 2006. At that time, the Directorate consisted only of the interim WSL Director and his deputy, neither of whom had a strong research background, and so it fell to Niklaus, as a scientist with an international reputation, to represent – and where necessary defend – WSL's research activities. "What really marks out Niklaus Zimmermann is his scientific excellence and unerring commitment to good science," says current WSL Director Konrad Steffen. And Niklaus himself points out: "Directorate members never all have the same level of understanding about every single matter. I, for example, certainly played more of a role in shaping decisions on research management issues than in other areas."
WSL has changed a lot during Niklaus Zimmermann's time on the Directorate. After the 2006 reorganisation, for instance, which saw almost all senior management positions reassigned and existing procedures overhauled, all of WSL's processes and structures had to be redefined. "In my early days, Directorate meetings sometimes lasted up to 14 hours," Niklaus recalls. "But we gradually introduced clear processes and rules and brought research scientists onto the managerial staff, which has made us a more professional organisation." This applies not only to the Directorate but also to WSL as a whole. Niklaus remembers the President of the ETH Board in the 2000s repeatedly calling on WSL to publish more in international scientific journals. He compiled statistics on publication activity from the annual reports of all the institutions in the ETH Domain, and lo and behold, it transpired that WSL was already publishing a lot at that time – and the number of publications has risen year after year ever since.
Within the Directorate, Niklaus has always championed scientists starting out on their careers. "PhD students have a lot to thank Niklaus Zimmermann for," acknowledges Konrad Steffen. Moreover, this has helped to boost WSL's outstanding scientific reputation, because its young researchers are not just key ambassadors for the institute, but crucially also drive research forward. As Niklaus notes, "Nowadays, we're a modern, internationally focused research institute that is also committed to translating research into practice. That change wasn't easy to make, but it was achieved thanks to the incredible contribution of all WSL staff."
Niklaus Zimmermann may be leaving the Directorate, but he will remain part of the WSL family. As the scientific director of the new Extremes research programme, which is currently being set up, he will once again focus more on his own research. "I'm looking forward to it – and WSL will continue to prosper once I've left the Directorate, because all of its members are committed to the good of WSL as a whole."