What do you think is important in the exchange with these external groups?
People should not only meet on a factual level, but also as human beings. As everywhere else, relationships need to be cultivated. This is not always easy, as the academic world and the practical world are very different. The careers are different, the problems are different, and the language is different. I found it extremely exciting to operate in these two worlds. You have to listen a lot and sometimes drink a beer together. This creates openness and trust, an important basis for dialogue. This also applies to internal contacts. They are just as important and need to be nurtured. That’s why I was sometimes referred to as the “Minister of the Interior”.
“People should not only meet on a factual level, but also as human beings.”
The months and years leading up to the referendums on the drinking water and pesticide initiatives in 2021 were certainly intense. How did you experience this time? And what were the key findings from this?
It was exciting on the one hand, but difficult on the other. It was exciting to learn about the role of science in cooperation with politics. A research institute must limit itself to communicating data and facts in a comprehensible manner and highlighting the consequences of possible courses of action. It is not its task to make recommendations to politicians and to intervene in political discourse.
It was difficult that the practice, with which I am closely networked, often intervenes very actively in political discussions. As a person, I would have liked to have been involved, but as deputy director, that wasn’t possible. Not being able to express my opinion publicly was often challenging for me.
In addition to your duties as deputy director, you continued to be active in research. What are you particularly proud of in your research career?
I am proud that after many years of research in the Micropoll project, wastewater treatment plants in Switzerland are now being expanded to remove micropollutants. Other milestones for me were several major research initiatives, the results of which are now being put into practice, including the transdisciplinary urine source separation project Novaquatis, the interdisciplinary research initiative EcoImpact on the impact of micropollutants in watercourses, the international project Pestrop on pesticides in tropical regions and, currently, the Sinergia project Trapego on the sustainable transformation of Swiss agriculture. I also recently co-initiated the “Climate change and aquatic biodiversity” research programme.
“Milestones for me were several major research initiatives,
the results of which are now being put into practice.”
I am also particularly pleased about the establishment of the Ecotox Centre as a kind of “spin-off” from Eawag. I was one of the initiators. Today, the centre is even known across Europe for its expertise. I am also proud of the two VSA platforms “Water Quality” and “Process Engineering Micropollutants”, an idea of mine that I was able to realise together with the FOEN and the VSA. Today, the platforms are central innovation and consulting centres for policy execution. They are closely networked with our research departments, but are still independent. In this way, they ensure the transfer of knowledge from Eawag research into practice.
What role does water research play today in view of the global challenges of climate change, biodiversity loss and population growth?
Water runs like a common thread through many global challenges. Climate change is visible in the water. The energy transition is closely linked to water via hydropower or cooling and heating with water. Without water, no food production is possible. Biodiversity is most at risk in freshwater. As the population grows, the sustainable management of drinking water and wastewater is becoming increasingly important. Water protects settlements from overheating. There are also conflicts surrounding water. Because when people are faced with the decision of either dying of thirst or moving, they will set off on their way. This is already happening today and will intensify in future. These challenges are enormous and solutions must be developed with the support of science. Without focusing on water, we will not be able to overcome some of the global challenges.
In addition to research, you have also been active in teaching for over 30 years, most recently as a titular professor at the ETH Zurich. How important was this task to you?
That was simply wonderful. Young people are curious and interested. That motivated me. I was able to pass on my experience in inter- and transdisciplinary subjects to the students. I have also supervised numerous doctoral students and postdocs. I have always enjoyed doing that.
Looking back on your research career, do you have any advice for young researchers?
For me, it is crucial that you do what you are convinced of. My experience is that it is extremely difficult to plan a career. I never planned to become a professor or deputy director. It just happened and maybe I was just lucky. I did what I found exciting and important. My advice is therefore: do what you want to do out of your own conviction. Then you will be enthusiastic about it and there is a greater chance that it will turn out well. And a second tip: a good dose of humility and humour.