Giving Science a Voice

Moving from industry to politics, or from the business world to that of science and research, has long been the norm in the United States and other countries. In Germany, however, this is not the case. Here, my election to the presidency of the Wissenschaftsgemeinschaft Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Association of Research Centres, in short: Leibniz Association) has been greeted with amazement. I am the former manager of an industrial company and headed the Bundesverband der Deutschen Industrie ( Federation of German Industries) for 6 years. A comparable situation has only happened once before in Germany. In the late 1930s, the then managing director of BASF and later Nobel laureate in chemistry, Carl Bosch, headed the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gesellschaft.

So, it engenders great anxiety and since my appointment at the end of March, and even more so since I assumed office at the beginning of July, the most frequent question addressed to me has been: 'What does this mean?'

First of all, I do not consider this step so unusual. For many years, I have been interested in and actively engaged in research and educational policy. I was thus involved when I was chairman of IBM Germany and also afterward as president of the Federation of German Industries, as this was part of the job. Hence it is, as it were, in my blood.

My main task will be to represent the interests of the 78 member institutes of the Leibniz Association. This will be my top priority and is the task for which I was elected. At present, I am trying to become acquainted as quickly as possible with as many Leibniz Institutes as possible and to talk to their directors. The scientific diversity I am thus experiencing is extraordinarily fascinating. But there is another reason why I took over this office--and in this respect I have reached an agreement with the Board of the Leibniz Association. I should also like to be the advocate of the interests of German science in general.

In the past few years, I have been struck by the fact that there are plenty of advocates in all walks of life: advocates of social justice, the unemployed, the trade unions, industry, banks and insurance companies, university professors. There are also those advocates who represent science and research in general, such as the Wissenschaftsrat (Science Council), the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (German Research Association) or my colleagues, the presidents of the other major science organisations. Strangely enough, they always exercise some kind of noble restraint. There is one thing I have learnt: If you want to give momentum to something, you must sometimes use the language of politicians, both their tone and their pitch. And this is what I intend to do.

The majority of Science's Next Wave readers are junior scientists. I presume that many of them are following with great interest the discussion about the abolition of the Habilitation in Germany (university teaching qualification for lecturers). Edelgard Bulmahn, the German Minister for Education and Research, wishes to do away with this antiquated system and replace it with so-called junior professorships. In principle, it is a good idea, as the Habilitation, substantially a second doctoral thesis after the PhD thesis, delays scientific independence of junior researchers, thus creating intellectual dependency. Sometimes, this leads to a situation where not the best, but rather those who are best able to adapt, climb up the career ladder. So, it makes sense to abolish the Habilitation. But the way in which junior professorships are currently designed means that young scientists working at nonuniversity research institutes can no longer become professors. This cannot, of course, have been the intention of those who invented the junior professorship and must, at all costs, be rectified. There must be different paths leading to a professorship. The minister's good intentions must not turn a career path into a dead end.

In conclusion, a few words about what my election does not mean: It does not mean that the Leibniz Institutes are now suddenly to work for industry. This role is already performed well and successfully in Germany by the Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft (Fraunhofer Society). The mission of the Leibniz Institutes lies rather in the field of application-oriented basic research and provision research for society. It is in their continued successful fulfilment of these tasks, perhaps indeed even improving this a little, that I should like to lend my support to the institutes. I am not the Trojan horse of industry.

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