Climate Crisis, Evolution and a New Building Project
UZH researchers’ answers to the burning questions of the day made international headlines in 2019. The plans for the new “Forum UZH” also met with great media interest. .
The UZH Media Relations team issued nearly 90 press releases last year, 80 percent of which announced research findings. The 10 most successful media releases generated more than 5,200 reports in radio, TV, print and online media, mainly in Switzerland, Germany, the United Kingdom and the USA.
The breadth of topics covered in those releases reflects the University of Zurich’s diversity – research areas ranged from geography and economics to linguistics and chemistry, to mention just a few. Several releases were connected with the evolutionary adaptive capabilities of humans and other animals. And two of the biggest current challenges facing society, antibiotic resistance and climate change, were among the top ten most reported subjects. The most successful studies in terms of media reach often come from international research teams, and last year two such studies engendered well over 1,000 reports.
1. Disappearing glaciers and rising sea levels
Climate change triggered rising temperatures and heated debates in 2019. But alongside the demonstrations and political debates, the media also reported on new research findings, such as those of glaciologist Michael Zemp and his international team. They calculated that glaciers worldwide had lost more than 9,000 tons of ice since 1961 and were melting at a faster and faster rate. At the same time the sea level rose by 27 millimeters – news that traveled around the globe in more than 1,400 media reports on all continents, reaching a potential readership of over a billion people.
2. The fatter the wallet, the more honest the finder
With more than 1,300 reports all over the world – although mainly in the German-speaking countries and in North and South America – a surprising finding by behavioral economists also proved to be a hit with the media: The more money is in a lost wallet, the more likely it is to be returned to its owner. In explanation, researchers in economist Michel Maréchal’s team posited that the finder’s self-image as an honest person was more important to them than the short-term financial gain. The worldwide study compared behavior in different countries, with Switzerland emerging as one of the most honest nations. This was reported by Swiss news program “10vor10” as well as in 60 other media reports. So the “fat wallet” was worth it – if not for financial gain, at least for media exposure.
3. How eating habits influenced language
Great international interest was piqued, especially in North America, by the discovery that dietary habits influenced the development of language. With the start of agriculture in the Neolithic Age, the softer food available led to changes in the human bite, resulting in new sounds such as “F” and “V”. These connections were uncovered by Balthasar Bickel and his team, who between them combined disciplines such as biological anthropology, phonetics and historical linguistics. The study was covered by CNN and the New York Times, as well as in almost 800 other reports.
4. Goodbye cave bear: Human competition
The extinction of the cave bear caused headlines in 2019, particularly in the UK and Germany. In a European study, Verena Schünemann and her research team evaluated genetic material from several caves. They concluded that humans had played a key role in the circumstances that led to the number of cave bears reducing drastically more than 40,000 years ago. Humans competed with the bears for habitat, and hunted them. The herbivores’ survival chances were also diminished as the climate cooled and food became more scarce. The fate of the cave bears was taken up by the BBC, the Independent, the Washington Post and Spiegel, to name just a few. With 680 reports, the study reached a potential readership of over 1.3 billion people.
5. Dog food as health risk
Stories about our canine friends are always likely to attract media interest, especially if they concern the health of our beloved pets. Magdalena Nüesch-Inderbinen’s research group analyzed dog food consisting of raw meat, a diet known as BARF, and found antibiotic-resistant bacteria in half of all samples. These multi-resistant germs can be transferred to the dog, and from there to their human owners. This news was apparently not just of interest to dog owners, but was also gobbled up by the media with around 350 reports worldwide, more than 250 of which were in German-speaking countries.
6. More similar than we thought: Neanderthals and us
Prehistoric humans were apparently more similar to us than previously thought – at least in terms of posture and gait. Evolutionary medicine specialist Martin Häusler showed using the virtual reconstruction of the pelvis and spine of a very well preserved skeleton from France that Neanderthals did not stand in a bent over position, but stood as upright as modern humans. This result met with great interest in the USA and Europe, and was also picked up by various Indian media outlets. There were 150 reports on the subject in total, making this media release number six in our top 10.
7–8 Brains and balls: Findings from the animal kingdom
A study in the field of evolutionary biology may have caused over 100 million potential readers to smirk while checking the news on their morning commute. Stefan Lüpold and his colleagues showed that to maximize their reproductive potential, male primates are either well-endowed down below, or have showy adornments – but not both. The researchers compared over 100 sexual characteristics and found that flashy ornamentation such as manes and beards went along with smaller testicles. Developing both would apparently take up too much energy. The paper generated 130 reports worldwide and led journalists in English and Spanish-speaking countries to draw conclusions about men with beards.
A study from the Department of Anthropology had a similar reach. Sandra Heldstab and other researchers showed that animal species in which fathers helped raise their offspring developed larger brains.
9. Fighting antibiotic resistance
Researchers in the lab of chemist John Robinson presented a promising approach to combating an urgent medical problem in 2019: They discovered a new class of antibiotics with a unique mechanism of action against Gram-negative bacteria – microorganisms whose resistance against last-resort antibiotics is increasing worldwide. The good news was shared in the Swiss TV news, among others, and was well reported particularly in German-speaking countries.
10. A forum for UZH and the city
News about the Forum UZH enjoyed nationwide coverage, with over 100 reports across TV, radio and all major print and online media publications. As one of the central building projects on the UZH city campus, it will become a defining feature of the university quarter from 2027. Thanks to the appointment of star architects Herzog & De Meuron, the media release about the construction project was also reported abroad in various architecture journals.