From the lab bench to the political stage.
November 2013Each morning he cycles to his office at the Münsterplatz in Basel. The usual business of telephone calls and writing – seen in most offices – are rare here. Instead, in a half-hourly rhythm decisions are made or orders placed, to sculpt on Basel’s cityscape, to pave its streets and direct the streams of traffic. The Biozentrum’s alumnus Hans-Peter Wessels is a State Councilor of the Canton of Basel-Stadt. This former stay-at-home has become a very public person
You already joined a political party as a teenager. How did this come about?
As far back as I can remember I was keen on politics. Already as a youngster I was very interested in the news. And then two topics caught my attention, which continue to fascinate me today: Migration and environmental politics. Until I was six, we lived in Canada. We also spoke English at home. In 1968, when I started school in Switzerland, I had to repeat the first class, because according to the teacher, I was an extraordinarily stupid child. The problem was rather that I didn’t yet know enough German. I had the same problem that many foreign speaking children still experience today.
The fact that I read much quite early also influenced me greatly. I was a true stay-at-home and devoured loads of popular scientific literature. This also contributed to sparking my interest in environmental issues. I joined the Social Democratic Party, when I was 19. Shortly after this, I started at the ETH in Zurich, where I was very active in student politics. Admittedly, the fun factor was high and this was quite important to me. I only became truly politically active at 24, when I moved to Basel.
You studied biochemistry. Wouldn’t other directions have been more obvious considering your interest in politics?
Only science came into question for me. Since my stay-at-home days I was determined about this. Originally I wanted to study physics but as biotechnology was slowly growing at that time, I became very enthusiastic about biology. Finally I chose biochemistry. I found the studies enormously enriching.
You are now the Director of the Planning and Transport Department. This field seems to be relatively far away. Despite this, did your studies provide you with something for your current daily work?
Sure. As a scientist, one has a good basis from which to consider other fields, to extract important aspects and to analyze complex systems. Basically my schooling formed my way of thinking and I still profit from this today.
You have worked in various fields. How was it for you, to repeatedly immerse yourself in completely different matters?
The issues varied considerably, however, I actually always moved within the triangle formed by science – politics – communication. In certain phases, different aspects simply stood more in the foreground. Currently it’s politics but my experience in communication also serves me well now. Science is more in the background at the moment, however, I think that particularly for a life sciences hub like Basel it is good to also have scientists who are involved in politics. I simply have a different approach to some matters than a lawyer or an economist.
Did you always know that you wanted to be a full-blooded and full-time politician one day?
I really can’t remember but at my election to councilor, a childhood friend of mine said that already as a teenager this was my goal. It’s true that I was interested in an executive office already as a younger politician, however, I didn’t strive for this. The opportunity to be a candidate for this office actually presented itself when I no longer expected it.
What is your daily routine?
It always amuses me, that in no other job have I telephoned and emailed so little as I do now. My day is generally defined by a succession of meetings in a half-hourly to hourly rhythm, from morning till night, without a break. It has to do with the fact that those working in my department need my decision on a matter, or need to inform me about something or directions need to be given. Most takes place verbally. And then of course, I have representative obligations at many events and also attend meetings externally.
Do you get a chance to relax and switch off at all?
The long days are an issue. As a rule, I am away on three or four evenings a week. What I really try to keep to the absolute minimum are my obligations at the weekend. This time is reserved for me, my family, to cycle and to walk and – if I am really honest – to work in peace.
Now you are a public figure. Has this changed your life?
Yes, indeed. Many passers-by recognize me. Total strangers greet me by name and on Saturday, when I go shopping locally, half the people in the shop know who I am. Some even look to see what I have in my shopping trolley. So to a degree one loses a part of one’s privacy but one gets used to this. And luckily, if I want to go unrecognized, I just need to go over the border to another canton.
Back to your past: After completing your dissertation at the Biozentrum you moved directly into consulting. Wasn’t the lab bench an option for you?
My thesis work was super exciting and I had an extremely good time at the Biozentrum. However, over time I realized that I wanted to have a career as either a top researcher or otherwise to do something completely different. For the first option, I would have had to concentrate 200% on my research work – and this was no guarantee of success – and that did not suit my personality. My interests are simply too broad.
In 2000, as the Managing Director of the Pharmazentrum you moved into the Biozentrum’s neighborhood. Won’t the Biozentrum let you go?
It seems that way. I really enjoyed meeting many people again from my days as a PhD student. My PhD colleagues are in the meantime inevitably spread around the whole world, however, some professors and scientific assistants and particularly people in the administration, the cafeteria, the reception and buildings services were still there. And it is almost bizarre, that as the Director of Planning, I am now responsible for the construction of the new Biozentrum, which we are realizing together with the Canton Baselland. I am already looking forward to the laying of the cornerstone and think it is great that at least through this building project I remain in contact with the Biozentrum.
Does this building affect you differently than other construction sites in Basel?
Yes, if I am honest. At the moment we have a huge portfolio of projects for extremely interesting new construction projects, but in regard to the Biozentrum there is a special emotional attachment.
Hans-Peter Wessels is a State Councilor of the Canton of Basel-Stadt since 2009 and Director of the Department of Planning and Transport. Already at 19 years of age, he joined the Social Democratic Party. At 29, he became a member of the Great Council of the Canton of Basel-Stadt, where he served for over 11 years. His professional career began with his studies at the ETH in Zurich. In 1990, he graduated with a doctorate in biochemistry under Martin Spiess at the Biozentrum. Following consultancy work in the fields of ecology and public relations, he returned to the ETH Zurich in 1995. It is there that he began to combine science and politics: Firstly, he was appointed head of Science Policy at the Department of Environmental Systems Science. Later he became the interim head of the Swiss National Supercomputing Centre of the ETH in the Ticino and a lecturer of Technology Ethics & Politics. In 2000, as Managing Director of the Pharmazentrum Basel-Zurich, he was again drawn back to the close neighborhood of the Biozentrum. From 2006 until his election to State Councilor, he was the Managing Director of Basel Area Economic Promotion.