’We should give something back to society’

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Ruzica Dadic was born in Gradacac (Bosnia) in 1977 and brought up in Heiligensch
Ruzica Dadic was born in Gradacac (Bosnia) in 1977 and brought up in Heiligenschwendi in the Swiss canton of Bern. She is Head of the Snow and Atmosphere Research Unit at the WSL Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research (SLF) in Davos. Dadic enjoys playing games, reading and cooking, participates in many outdoor sports and speaks five languages. She lives with her partner and their three children in Davos. (Photo: Jochen Bettzieche / SLF)
Ruzica Dadic has been Head of the Snow and Atmosphere Research Unit at the WSL Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research (SLF) since 1 February 2023. On a walk around Lake Davos, she explains why research should be more socially engaged and why she wants to adopt a more interdisciplinary approach to her work.

Ruzica, we have less and less snow. Why are we still researching it?

Very good point - and one that I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. Yes, we have less snow, but the snow is also changing and it’s affecting the climate. We still don’t know exactly how big the repercussions are. For instance, we know that snow reflects a lot of solar radiation, and if there’s less snow, the earth absorbs more heat and the planet warms up faster. If governments want to take action on climate change, then we should be able to tell them, based on scientific studies, "Look, this is what’s happening with snow and ice, and this is how it’s affecting the global climate." But if we don’t have any concrete numbers, because we’re no longer doing snow research, then nobody will believe us, right? And it’s not just about the snow.

What else is involved?

It’s also about looking at how changes in snow quantities in Switzerland affect, for example, winter sports and tourism, water availability, avalanches and natural hazards, glaciers and biodiversity. That’s very difficult. To do it, we need to understand the processes taking place in the snow. With winter sports, for example, we can’t just say: we have less snow, so we’ll just ski less, end of story. Snow sports are a huge industry in Switzerland and one that we can’t simply ignore.

In countries like Germany, fewer and fewer people are skiing. Is snow research becoming research for a wealthy elite?

No, snow research is relevant for all of us, because snow is much more than just the basis for skiing.

Why is that?

Snow also has broad social relevance, especially in the Alpine region. Winter sports promote well-being, for example. In fact, health insurance funds could actually encourage skiing and snow sports, as they do with other forms of physical activity, such as cycling or going to the gym. But we should also think about how we can make winter sports sustainable so that we invest in areas that will still make sense in 20 years’ time. And then there are the other aspects of snow, all the natural hazards, biodiversity, climate change, landscape and glaciers, snow in the polar regions... For example, what will happen to all the animals and ecosystems if there’s no more snow? Snow is also important for the water balance in the Alps. One of the things we study is what happens as this reservoir shrinks. Snow has a major impact on the climate too, as it both insulates the ground or underlying ice and reflects sunlight, thereby cooling the earth. We can think of snowpack as being like our planet’s refrigerator, which is gradually disintegrating. That affects all of us. Hopefully this makes it clear that snow research isn’t research for the privileged elite.

You only recently became head of your research unit. Do you already have an idea of what focal areas and priorities you want to set?

Yes. Particularly in the context of climate change, we need to be better interconnected, both at an interdisciplinary level and with society and policymakers. We should also sit down with social scientists, economists and medical experts to see how we can make a big whole out of what we’re all researching in small parts. After all, there will be many challenges in the next 20 to 30 years.

Does science have to be neutral, or can it get involved in social and political processes?

Of course researchers have to get involved. We’re citizens too, just like everyone else. Science should be neutral in the sense of being done in a sound and robust way. In other words, we look at all aspects without bias, which is what good research is all about anyway. One of our main tasks as a research institution is to develop solutions to socially relevant problems, but we also have a responsibility to communicate our findings in such a way that people will listen to us. If we as researchers don’t communicate well, people will take the issue of climate change less seriously. It isn’t enough for us to hand over our data and papers and leave the decision-making to others. A scientist will never be a politician - we have different jobs to do. But dialogue is important. And as researchers, it’s also our responsibility to put issues on the agenda. After all, science receives a lot of public funding. Society rightly expects us to give something back. Research must have a benefit, an added value for people, and it does.

Will there still be enough time for your own research?

I hope so, otherwise this wouldn’t work for me - because at some point I would have trouble seeing all the interconnections. Research doesn’t just stand still. If I were to stop doing any research at all for several years, there might come a time when I was no longer able to recognise what was important and what was less important. I think you always have to keep that in mind.

A phased goodbye

Martin Schneebeli began his scientific career studying raised bogs rather than snow. In 1991, the cultural engineer wrote his doctoral thesis on the hydrology of raised bogs, but moved to the SLF that same year. From then on, his love was for snow, from the Alps to the polar caps, and everything snow-related. In the 1990s, for example, he photographed snow profiles using infrared film, based on spectral albedo measurements. This basic research has resulted in a number of commercially marketed devices over the decades. He was really in his element when he spent three months drifting through the pack ice on the frozen research vessel Polarstern from December 2019 to March 2020 as part of the MOSAiC expedition. But he is also interested, for example, in why saltwater fish survive in freshwater bodies in the polar ice. Having been Head of the SLF’s Snow and Atmosphere Research Unit since 2018, he handed over this role to Ruzica Dadic on 1 February 2023. He will, however, retain his ties with the SLF - advising, explaining and acting as, so to speak, a human database of knowledge about snow, ice and the history of snow research.