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"We have what it takes to take a leading position"

Picture: Markus Breig / KIT

The designated President of the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), Jan S. Hesthaven, on the future strategy of his institution, the strengths of the Helmholtz Association, and what research can learn from Elon Musk.

Professor Hesthaven, your heart beats for model ships. Which one are you currently working on?

I still have to put the finishing touches to the Beagle, Darwin's research vessel. I've been working on it for three years now. Working with wood relaxes me immensely and the ship is simply beautiful.

If the KIT were a ship: Is it more of a fast sailing boat or a big tanker?

(laughs) It's a classically elegant and fast ship. Do you know the America's Cup?

You mean the famous regatta?

Exactly. Back in the 1920s, there were ships with a wonderful wooden hull, with a lot of history, but at the same time very maneuverable, flexible and state-of-the-art technology. One of the most famous ships is the Endeavour. She would be the KIT in this picture.

Let's stay with the ship metaphor for a moment: What work awaits you as a modeler on the KIT ship?

Two things spring to mind: Firstly, I want to ensure that we have the best possible crew, also with a view to the international competition. All crew members should feel that they are in good hands with us. And secondly, I would like us to work more closely with other ships during the regatta.

You have been working at renowned research institutions in various countries for many years. What new things have you learnt about KIT in recent weeks?

I am particularly fascinated by the opportunities that lie within the university's remit. KIT not only comprises large-scale research, but also a fantastic university, and I believe that this university part can benefit even more from the connection to the entire Helmholtz Association. Switzerland is a role model in this respect: At ETH in Zurich, for example, there are intensive deliberations on how to combine the advantages of a university and a research institution.

What are you thinking about specifically?

I would like to see a smooth workflow from basic research to application. Typically, curiosity-driven basic research tends to be seen at universities, whereas the Helmholtz Association offers excellent opportunities with its large research infrastructures and the ability to think long-term and on a large scale. It would be a missed opportunity if KIT did not make even greater use of the possibilities that arise from the truly unique environment of the Helmholtz Association. But I have also noticed something negative.


KIT is not as international as it should be, from personnel policy to communication. If we want to play in the global league of research institutions, then we have to be an international organization. More needs to happen.

Immediately after your election, you announced that you wanted to attract top American and Asian talent to KIT. What specific measures can you take to achieve this?

One thing is certain: We can’t score points purely through financial incentives. If you want to earn really big money, you go to the private sector, for example, to the big Internet companies. In these cases, we can only wish them every success and God's blessing  because we can't keep up. However, most top researchers are not interested in money alone: What attracts them is an intellectually inspiring and international atmosphere. And we really don't have to hide here, and neither does the Helmholtz Association: There are such great institutions under this umbrella that we can all only benefit from closer co-operation.

You yourself also deal with artificial intelligence in your research....

.... and that's why I know that we are primarily competing with the five or six large American corporations in this field. They want the same talents, breakthroughs and resources as we do, but they have virtually unlimited resources. We only have a chance if we make it clear that we are part of a larger whole. And Forschungszentrum Jülich, as well as other institutions within the Helmholtz Association, are very strong in some areas of artificial intelligence. We have what it takes to take a leading position in this field, but also in many other forward-looking disciplines. However, none of the institutions can achieve this on their own; it can only be done together.

Prof Dr Jan S. Hesthaven has been elected as the new President of the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT). The Danish mathematician most recently worked as Vice President for Academic Affairs at the École polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL). He began his career at the renowned Brown University in the USA, where he was founding director of the Center for Computation and Visualisation and deputy director of the Institute of Computational and Experimental Research in Mathematics. He will take up his post in Karlsruhe in October.

What does this mean for KIT: Is it about a new mindset or about specific organizational changes?

Oh dear, when I talk about structural reforms, 10,000 people at KIT get nervous. But it's important to me to initiate changes together. My initial thoughts on this are that I have the impression that the basic disciplines such as math, physics, biology, chemistry and computer science are not as strong as they should be. If you look at the world's leading technology research institutions, be it ETH in Zurich or Lausanne, MIT or Caltech, you will see that they are all also leaders in these basic sciences. I'm not saying that there aren't outstanding people at KIT in this field, but they are not visible enough. That's where I want to start, that's the first part of the answer.

And the second?

It's about computer science, the computer sciences. A small comparison: The German car industry is not having an easy time at the moment. It builds traditional cars with a computer in them. Elon Musk's approach with his company Tesla is to build a computer that looks like a car. That completely changes the understanding of a car, it's a real transformation.

Let me guess: The KIT is to become the Tesla of research institutions.

My concern is that we have to take into account the transformation that is currently taking place. And the fact that computer science is a discipline like all the others, self-contained in a silo, does not seem to me to be the right way to go about it. And then I have a third concern: I believe that KIT has great potential in the area of lifelong learning. We have more than 70,000 alumni, and if they want to update their knowledge or learn something new, then they should come to us. We have to create a program for them. I know it's not going to be an easy path, but it's definitely the right direction.

If we look at your own path into science: Did you always know that you wanted to be a mathematician?

Yes, ever since I was little! Math was always easy for me at school, I started programming early on and never thought about doing anything else. Although, that's not entirely true: There was a phase before that when I would have liked to become a pilot, like many other children.

A pilot's license would suit you now, wouldn't it? It's quite a long way from Karlsruhe to your holiday home in Denmark.

(laughs) I'm afraid no airplane would help me there either: There's no landing strip anywhere near our house.

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