If you ask him what excited him about research over all these years, his answer is surprisingly simple: “In the early 1980s, polluted waters were a daily topic and I was motivated by the fact that the research questions were so closely tied to real problems. Environmental politics were also awakening at that time, which made environmental research exciting."
His enthusiasm persists to this day and has kept Johny looking at research holistically all these years: “Environmental research always happens in a social context and not as an end in itself,” he is convinced. And he has worked for this not only in his home country, but also far beyond its borders. Seeing the context, whether it is on a social or political level, in Switzerland or in his international projects. “Research in an ivory tower cannot work”. With this conviction, he shaped Eawag internally but also externally, as Johny Wüest was often committed to ensuring that the relevance and context of Eawag research was perceived and understood.
In this context, he also sees the impressive period of Eawag’s reorganisation at the end of the 1990s, which still evokes memories today. At that time, too, it was about the tension between the specialisation of science and the overarching issues. Something that, according to Johny, is repeating itself with the recent sustainability debate: “I would like to see research face up to this discussion and question the pursuit of publications. The fact that the younger generation in particular is asking critical questions will also be useful to Eawag as a national research institute, because we must not lose sight through specialisation of the overarching objectives that are important for Switzerland, Europe and the world.”
“Rather proud of that”
If one wanted to list all of Johny Wüest’s professional positions and scientific achievements, it would take considerably more room. Nevertheless, Johny mentions a few successes of which he is “rather proud”. For example, the combination of research and consultancy at Lake Kivu, where the objective was to understand the accumulation of methane and carbon dioxide that continues to spread fear in memory of the deadly Nyos eruption of 1986. The various projects of the Swiss National Science Foundation and Federal Department of Foreign Affairs that he was able to carry out with his Eawag colleague Martin Schmid are probably among the most detailed studies ever conducted on a single lake and have resulted in expertise documented in over 20 publications. "Many years of consulting for the government of Rwanda and the first large-scale methane mining project, KivuWatt, also opened my eyes to the political complexity in a development context,” Johny explains today.
His most intense experiences included working in Russia, where he felt a deep divide between institutional and political deficits and cooperative, collegial and competent collaboration with academic colleagues. In Russia, together with Eawag researchers Michael Sturm, Michael Schurter and Martin Schmid, he was able to make some spectacular observations of deep water formation on Lake Baikal in winter, when strong winds led to nearshore subsidence, causing the thermobaric stratification to tunnel.
Johny’s work on the encounter between ecology and energy included the Lake Brienz Project, where he was able to lead a team of researchers and practitioners together with Markus Zeh, Office of Water Protection and Waste Management of the Canton of Bern, to get to the root of changes in the nutrient/production regime and turbidity as well as the effect of pumped storage power plants. A real interdisciplinary highlight was the project at Lake Cadagno in Ticino, where, under the direction of Tobias Sommer, half of the Surface Waters Department and an international group of researchers were able to mobilise to find out from the Chromatium Okenii bacteria whether they are capable of mechanically mixing entire layers of water.
The list could go on to include numerous other exciting projects and research work, but it must include the LéXPLORE research platform, to whose success Johny made a significant contribution. Thanks in part to his commitment, the floating laboratory was able to begin its work on Lake Geneva in February 2019. “I am proud that we have succeeded in bringing together all the limnologically interested university institutes around the lake and convincing them of LéXPLORE,” Johny says, underlining the importance of the platform, which can now be used to study processes in a large lake in a densely populated region. Currently, around 30 projects are under way there - from the occurrence of the Quagga mussel to contamination with microplastics.