The fundamental principle of the Max Planck Society is to allow outstandingly creative scientists, who think in interdisciplinary terms, scope for independent scientific development. The Harnack principle takes its name from the first President of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society, which was the Max Planck Society’s predecessor organization. It represents a traditional policy of appointing the brightest minds as Scientific Members of the Max Planck Society, and building whole departments around these exceptional individuals when they become departmental directors. Yet the Harnack principle is concerned with more than just the central role of these researchers. It can also be seen as a complex of guiding principles for the overall organization of research, with the aim of making new scientific perspectives effective in the long term.
The necessary freedom to achieve this aim is afforded by the Society’s exceptional organizational structure. The Scientific Member alone decides on his or her research objectives and methods. Such conditions, combined with rigorous selection of candidates for appointment, have made the Max Planck Society one of the most attractive destinations in Germany for leading international scientists.
Once appointed, the heads of department or Max Planck Research Groups do not follow a curriculum or research programme determined by the organization or by market requirements. Instead, they rely on their own intuition, which allows them as researchers to transform and advance the cause of science. The critical factor in the distribution of resources within the Max Planck Society is not an institute’s overall performance — such as the provision of particular courses or mastery of organizational tasks — but the intellectual achievements of individuals and their teams, for example by making new discoveries or advancing knowledge to change the course of science. The Max Planck Society and its scientists see themselves as pioneers. This requires establishment of a ‘community of trust’, the basic units of which are the institutes.
Genuine innovation can also be achieved through the adoption of a long-term approach to work. At the Max Planck Society, success is rarely measured over short periods of time. The adoption of such a far-sighted approach is the only way to meet the challenge of exploring the unknown, which is always essential if important breakthroughs are to be made. Crucial scientific landmarks are often achieved by embarking on unknown paths.
Appointments, made in accordance with the Harnack principle, involve the provision of funding based on a profound leap of faith. Therefore, the Max Planck Society’s finance model for Scientific Members is often referred to as being based on a high-trust principle. This contrasts with the low-trust principle, whereby funding is allocated purely on a project or programme basis, which has increasingly been used in the German science system over the past few years. At a Max Planck institute, when a scientist is appointed as director, he or she is provided with resources until his or her retirement as a Scientific Member. Depending on the age at which such an appointment is made, this allows for between 20 and 30 years of independent research — an appropriate period of time for the development of the new scientific ideas required to achieve breakthroughs.
Comprehensive quality assurance is an essential element of the high-trust principle practised by the Max Planck Society. This is why the Society established an effective system of Scientific Advisory Boards (Fig. 1). Every two years, a researcher’s work is subject to critical assessment from internationally outstanding and independent colleagues within the relevant specialist discipline. The members of these Scientific Advisory Boards are both assessors and advisors to the researcher being evaluated. The deliberations of the Scientific Advisory Boards also influence the distribution of funds by the Max Planck Society: if the evaluation establishes that a department or institute has a particularly outstanding or notably weak research performance, this will have an impact on the research resources provided to the Scientific Members concerned and their personal earnings. Every six years, there is an extended evaluation of thematically-related institutes, which are grouped into a Max Planck Society research field. Comparative evaluation within the field is important, as is comparison with international developments in the field and the benchmarking of the evaluation procedure.