Living in Switzerland tends to be relatively safe, and research makes a decisive contribution towards ensuring that this is – and remains – the case. Top scientists and leading politicians exchanged views and information on this topic.
The ETH Domain is Switzerland's engine of innovation – and thus ultimately of its prosperity. This was the conclusion drawn by the President of the ETH Board, Fritz Schiesser, at the event held on Wednesday at the WSL Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research (SLF) in Davos on how scientific findings can contribute to prosperity and a safe, secure society.
The evening was opened by Federal Councillor Johann Schneider-Ammann. In particular, he urged the politicians in the audience to continue providing fertile conditions for research and higher education. In addition, science needs extensive academic and entrepreneurial freedom, he said, asserting that "any politicisation of research slows down innovation". He then went on to underscore the value of vocational training, pointing out that Switzerland did not just need university graduates. In the course of the discussion, Joël Mesot, Director of the Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI), pointed out that the ETH Domain educates some 500 vocational trainees, including some who have gone on to become world champions in their chosen professions.
Risk management instead of the illusion of safety
The Head of SLF, Jürg Schweizer, explained how closely interrelated research and protection against natural hazards are. "As we now know, guaranteeing total safety is impossible. So in our approach to dealing with natural hazards, we need to set limits on what can be allowed to happen. For example, by deciding to close a road for a few days a year, to protect it against an avalanche hazard. Next, we need to determine how this goal is to be achieved." This is where research can make a contribution. On the slopes of the Pizzo Cengalo in the Bergell valley, the SLF and its partners investigated the links between permafrost and rockfalls even before the devastating rock fall and debris flow that occurred in August of last year. After the event, the focus shifted to asking what else might happen in the future. Accordingly, not only did researchers find out where the water for the debris flow originated (from the glacier melted by the rock fall), but the SLF has since added combined rockfall-snow-ice events to its Rapid Mass Movements natural hazard simulation software (RAMMS). And for the hamlet Bondo the results are reassuring, because if another rockfall should occur this winter it is unlikely that such a snow avalanche will reach the village.
A digital Pestalozzi for Switzerland
Martin Vetterli, President of the Ecole polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), then switched attention to another major topic: cyber security. The link between cyber security and natural hazards is that cyber attacks endanger public safety and security and therefore, ultimately, undermine prosperity. "The WannaCry ransomware attacks paralysed the healthcare system in England", Vetterli pointed out. "And that is just the start. Imagine what would happen if the entire national power grid was brought down!". However, cyber security is just one aspect of 'digital trust', i.e. confidence in digital systems working reliably and serving the general public. Digital trust is key to Switzerland's future viability. So the population needs to be offered education and continuing training on digitalisation. The EPFL already offers various possibilities in this domain. All the same, or even more, perhaps: Switzerland needs a 'digital Pestalozzi'. In less than a century, Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi managed to raise the literacy rate in Switzerland from 20% to 75%, enabling the country to rise to the challenges of the Industrial Revolution. Today, Vetterli concluded, we all need to arm ourselves equally well for the digital revolution.