Politicizing research findings

© 2023 EPFL

© 2023 EPFL

Recently, a number of EPFL studies have been misrepresented for political ends.

At EPFL, we’re happy to see that the work done by our researchers is informing the public debate. However, we’re deeply concerned by several recent instances in which prominent individuals or groups have cherry-picked certain facts and figures without regard for the reasoning on which they are based or for the fact they were used for the purpose of scientific demonstration. Taken out of context, that information loses its scientific value and is no longer suited to shaping public opinion.

We defend the work done by our researchers. And we like to see them use their freedom of expression and opinion beyond purely academic circles. As a university, EPFL does not take a position in public debates. Rather, we contribute to them through research findings that have been verified through accepted scientific methods (such as peer review and data reproducibility).

Recent examples of findings taken out of context

  • In a recent newspaper article, Prof. Vincent Kaufmann discusses the impact that a speed limit of 60 km/h would have on highway traffic. This figure comes from a vast study on transportation habits in which he indicated that, theoretically, traffic above that speed wouldn’t be able to flow smoothly (as it results in stop-and-go traffic, for example). However, the article used Prof. Kaufmann’s figure to conclude that only extreme measures like that speed limit could have a genuine impact on the modal share of transport. But that overlooks Prof. Kaufmann’s main point, that the only solution is for people to travel less and over shorter distances. That point is clear in the full interview.

  • Prof. Andreas Züttel published a study titled Future Swiss Energy Economy in which he describes various energy transition scenarios and quantifies their costs. For its advertising campaign, a political party chose to use the most expensive – and least realistic – of those scenarios, in which Switzerland produces all its own energy (such as by manufacturing synthetic fuel). Prof. Züttel himself said this purely hypothetical scenario isn’t feasible and was only provided for the purpose of scientific demonstration.