The responsibility of research in the 21st century

Former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt's speech at the ceremony on 11 January 2011 Berlin

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That the Max Planck Society has invited this very old man to give a lecture, for the third time in my life, I find quite touching.  But I doubt that I actually have anything to offer you.  If my deceased wife Loki were standing here in my place, because of her many and varied encounters with scientists from the Max Planck Institutes and those known from joint expeditions she would express her appreciation and thanks to the Society in a song of high praise.  But I want to add this: as a citizen of our country I feel the same gratitude for the enormous overall achievements of the scientists and researchers in the Max Planck Society.  I'd like to mention two of them especially, Reimar Lüst and Hubert Markl, from whom I personally learned a great deal.

I am not bragging when I say that the research accomplished in the Max Planck Institutes, which since about the 1950's I have shared if only by information from afar, in the outside world enjoys a very high degree of respect.

Given that the hundredth birthday of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society is being honoured today, it may be appropriate to remember that in Berlin in 1911 people came to understand that Wilhelm von Humboldt's concept of the unity of teaching and research is no longer sufficient in itself.  Because I was not born until 1918, I cannot make my own judgement about the achievements as well as the failures of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society; I mean the dozen years of the Weimar Republic and the 12 years of the Nazi period.  Nevertheless I subsequently, in retrospect, hold it against that group of leading German researchers that in the reactionary nationalism prevailing then they clung to the symbolic figure of the ex-Kaiser.  After all, it had been evident for a long time that Wilhelm II as ruler, and also as fellow human, was everything other than a hero to emulate.

But I don't want to spend any more time on the history of the KWG.  Instead I would like to alter somewhat and to expand the theme I was assigned by Herr Gruss.  So I won't be concerned particularly with the Max Planck Society, but with scientists and researchers in general.  I would like to speak about the responsibilities of science — first regarding the new problems we see facing humanity at the beginning of the 21st century.  Then I'd like to turn somewhat more briefly to the specific questions that may arise for us Europeans.  And finally, a personal word on the relationship between science and politics.

Problems of humankind

1. The way in which humanity has actually developed so far has falsified the thesis of Thomas Robert Malthus, in which more than 200 years ago he predicted that if the world's population kept growing, sufficient food for it could no longer be guaranteed.  In fact, the world's population throughout the 19th century did steadily increase, and in the 20th century it even grew by a factor of 4, reaching 6 billion.  Towards the middle of the 21st century we shall have reached 9 billion.  Famine does sometimes occur, but on the whole nutrition is available to very many more people than Malthus imagined to be possible.

All the same, Malthus was right in at least one respect: the overpopulation of the planet does raise major problems.  Billions of people no longer live side by side in huts, but rather live in rooms stacked one above another.  Not only in the industrial countries, but also in those on the threshold and in the developing countries, an urbanization of the societies takes place.  Urbanization produces new epidemics, and people lose some of their individuality and can more easily be led astray, recently in particular also by way of new electronic media.  And wherever population explosion coincides with inadequate facilities, with political, economic or ecological malfunctions of all kinds, streams of migration are triggered.  And when masses of migrants cross their own country's boundaries, they initiate conflicts.

Of all the countries in the world, so far only China has produced an effective suppression of such things.  The Chinese example raises diverse problems — including ethical and philosophical questions.  Above all, however, the highly problematic non-intervention of the other countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America raises serious questions for the future.  It is not enough to take the standpoint that these are foreign parts of the earth, so we Europeans or Americans don't have to bother about them.  So far the scientific contributions of the Chinese towards a solution are of only limited value.  It is high time for one of the several leading organisations of German, or preferably European science to investigate the complex subject of the population explosion — and then put alternative suggestions for solutions on the table.

2. In parallel with the dramatic increase in population, for a half-century we have been experiencing an equally dramatic globalization of the economy.  This globalization has been given an enormous additional push forward in recent decades, quantitatively and qualitatively.  The term "world economy" has existed for a hundred years, but in fact until the 1980's it meant only the region of the OECD countries.  Today we are dealing with a truly global economy — and with the possibility of global economic crises.  In the autumn of 2008 and in 2009 humanity — though only with luck — was able to avoid a worldwide social-economic depression.  This was because the governments and the central banks of 20 of the most important countries in the world have made sure that the existential crisis facing an irresponsible banking network — primarily in New York and in London — could not burst out entirely onto the real economy of the world.  But because there are no obligatory rules encompassing the world's markets, further global economic crises seem likely.

I cite as example the utter failure since the late 90's of bank directors, supervisory boards, economy investigators etc. when confronted with the sometimes obscene practices of many ordinary and underground banks, stock traders, mortgage institutes, insurance companies and so on.  It makes no sense to maintain that this area should be left to politicians, as they understand it even less than scientists do.  But the economic administrations throughout the world since the mid-1990's have been clothed not in honour but rather in shame.  But who or which team is attempting a new approach?

I shall return below to another example, which is more urgent in the medium term, namely supplying energy to the global economy.

3. It has already been half a century since the worldwide military armament became a problem for humanity.  Then there were five countries with atomic weapons, and now that number has grown to at least eight, while other countries are standing on the threshold.  The present-day accumulated atomic destructive force has become a thousand times greater than it was in 1968, in the days of the non-propagation treaty.  I really do mean a thousand times!

However, this extreme armament assemblage applies not only to atomic weapons but also to rockets, tanks, aircraft, battleships.  And above all we must acknowledge: the almost unrestricted export of so-called conventional weapons has multiplied the annihilation potential.  All the million fatalities in international and civil wars since 1945 have been caused by conventional weapons, civilians as well as soldiers.  And zigthousand weapons have meanwhile come into the hands of people blinded by power ideology, among them thousands of diverse terrorists.

4. One and a half decades ago the American Samuel Huntington described the danger of a "clash of civilizations".  Today we must recognize: this danger is real.  It exists especially for the relationship between the West as a whole and the countries with major Islamic components (at least a quarter of all the countries in the world).  Many bishops, priests and also popes, many mullahs and ayatollahs have disseminated concepts of "Friend-Enemy" constellations.  This is a severe failure, not only for the churches and faith communities, but also for the academic faculties of philosophy, history etc. and the universities in general.  Furthermore, on the horizon of this century it also appears that the relations between the West as a whole and Asia are endangered, in particular with regard to the ascent of China.  In any case, as the whole human race continues to grow, it needs intra-Christian controversial theology much less than an investigation of the religious, philosophical and ethical-moral considerations that are shared by all.

5. In addition to all the above-mentioned problems caused by humans, we are simultaneously disturbed by the phenomenon of global warming and its consequences.  We know that ice ages and warm periods have always been natural events; but we do not know how great a contribution humans will make, now and in the future, to the present-day global warming.  The "climate policies" propagated internationally by many governments are still in early stages.  The documents so far delivered by an international group of scientists (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC) are encountering scepticism.  In any case, the goals publicly announced by some governments have so far been based less on scientific than on merely political arguments.

I think it is time for one of our top scientific organisations to put the work of the IPCC critically and realistically under the lens, and then to explain the conclusions drawn from this examination to the general public of our country, in an understandable way.

In order effectively to reduce humanity's contribution to global warming, it appears that in the course of the 21st century it will in any case be essential to convert from hydrocarbons to other energy sources.  This will also be required in the long term because the available reserves of oil, natural gas, coal, lignite etc. are limited.  Alternatives to be considered for the next decades are nuclear energy, solar energy and wind energy (water-generated power surely only in rare geographical situations).

The European countries have so far decided to adopt various energy policies: England, Holland and Norway depend on their own reserves of hydrocarbon fuels; France has chosen nuclear energy as its main supply of electricity; Germany is planning to reject both nuclear energy as well as its own  — very expensive — coal, and increasingly relies on imported hydrocarbons.  The other European countries behave similarly; solar energy and wind energy as yet are playing a subordinate, though increasing, role.

A common energy policy of the European Union does not exist, for the time being.  But is fairly certain that during the next decades an answer to these questions must be found.  In particular the obligatory conversion from hydrocarbons to other energy sources initially requires a large investment in research and development.  Above all, this demands basic research, so that regenerative energies in future can be put to use as a suitable alternative.

6. Now I have made for you a very generalized list of five foreseeable world problems that none of us yet knew about in the middle of the 20th century, when we were fascinated mainly by the East-West conflict and its conceivable consequences.  At the same time, though, it seems useful to mention a few other questions, which in my opinion will by no means become worldwide problems.  There will be no end to economic growth, because advances in the technologies of civilisation are unavoidable.  It is very unlikely that there will be a global nutrition problem, because the cultivation of useful plants and animals will continue to be successful, and genetic technology will help here.  There is also hardly any worry that the progress of science and research and of the technologies of civilisation will slow down globally.

After this sedative pill, however, an urgent appeal is needed.  In relative terms, there are far too few people with a worldwide overview.  Scientists and researchers specialize to a degree previously unheard of.  It may be that Alexander von Humboldt was the last universal scholar.  Modern scientists often lack an overview of the cosmos of our knowledge — and our abilities — within which their own field must be positioned.  Thus I turn in particular to the scientific elite.  I know that the word "elite" is a politically loaded expression.  Nevertheless you, my lady and gentleman scientists, are an elite: look at your efforts to achieve excellence, your evaluation activities, your testing systems.  Elites bear a special responsibility with respect to the human race.

It may be, of course, that scientists are people whose insights are greater than their efficacy in relation to the broader society.  It might also be that you, ladies and gentlemen, regard politicians as people whose efficacy is greater than their insights.  Nevertheless, scientists and researchers cannot expect to exist as happy hermits, untroubled by the world's problems, by economical and political events, or by the forces to which the rest of society is subject.  Because even as highly specialized researchers they remain a "political animal".  And therefore science today is not only merely — as Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker said — a "socially organised search for knowledge", but rather science is simultaneously a search for knowledge with a duty of social responsibility!  Hubert Markl was right when, two years ago in Heidelberg during a lecture on "Academic Duties", he said that what should take first place is "To Serve the Common Public ...".

7. At the end of this chapter, which surely cannot have generated overwhelming optimism, it is my heartfelt desire to point out an event that filled many people on the whole planet, including me, with complete joy.  I mean the 13th of October last year, when after long weeks of fear and anxiety 33 Chilean miners were rescued from 600 m underground.  As far as we can remember, there has hardly ever been an occasion when all of humanity, insofar as they could keep track on television of the events in the Atacama desert, were engaged in such unanimous rejoicing.

This day of global joy allows us to conclude that we all, whether yellow or black or white, are capable of rejoicing together.  Of course, and still more commonly, we can feel mutual anxiety — often enough, sadly, even wholesale anguish.  This is how we experienced the 11th of September 2001.  It was from this massive fear of terrorism that the unfortunate war against Iraq developed.

In contrast, however, experience has also shown that we can all be reasonable — and even mutually reasonable.  It is true that the governments of the countries on the lethal fields of excessive armament have so far made inadequate use of the opportunity for joint rational negotiation.  Nevertheless, they have created a largely communal international law — for example, in the form of the UN Charter.  And the human race, on rational grounds, has internationalised its scientific insights and even large parts of its research — an almost global example of joint rationality.  As a very recent example, I remind you of the autumn and winter 2008/2009, when the 20 most important governments and their central banks carried out mutual, reasonable negotiations in a historically unique manner, and thereby avoided the most severe damage.

Special Problems Confronting the Europeans

8. The praise that I just expressed must be limited, unfortunately, with respect to the 27 countries of the European Union.  Beginning with Maastricht 1991/92 the EU — then consisting of 12 countries — more than doubled its number of member countries.  In doing so, however, it paid no attention to the structures and procedures needed for mutual decision-making.  There is no clearly categorized, unambiguous division of powers.  The democratic principle is largely neglected; instead, each of the 27 governments has a right to veto regarding any important question.

It is quite possible that the as yet excellently functioning European Central Bank and its euro currency will, in due course, come to have rights and importance equal to those of the American dollar and later the Chinese renminbi.  But at present there exists no shared economic policy in EURO-land, not even any mutual financial policy.  There is no mutual policy that in a sensible manner would cause the USA to reduce its globally influential deficits, and that would sensibly compel both China and other countries to reduce their globally influential excesses.

As far as I can see, the international network of social-economic science has so far been relatively relaxed about this dangerous European calamity.  It has not made any impressive pronouncements at all.  Instead these scientists are chatting with one another, which is in itself highly controversial and in large part produces judgements reflecting national egoism as well as ideology.  At the same time thousands of economic scientists restrict themselves to investigating and teaching Business Administration.  Some even train investment bankers who are targeting bonuses.

The difficult omissions initially in Maastricht 1991, and then the failed attempt at a European constitution, and finally the much too complex Lisbon Treaty have resulted in a largely opaque mixture of rights and jurisdictions.  National craving for prestige and bureaucratic inertia are just about to make the EU incapable of doing business.

Despite the grand tradition of French, English, American or Dutch scientific political intellectuals, nowadays they have fallen silent, at least since the major turning point in about 1990.  There is no longer a concept of checks and balances.  German science seems to think about the EU only in two categories: either confederation or federal state.  There is no recognition that the EU must necessarily be a construct unlike any that has previously existed in the history of the world.  Now there is no Montesquieu, no Hugo de Groot; the wisdom of the American "Federalist Papers" has disappeared.

The general opinion — and the published opinion! — is considered by the political talk shows on TV as more important than the debate in their national parliaments, and much more important than the debate in the European parliament.  It is high time for the European parliament to act for itself in making space for its own initiatives and decisions.  The political scientists could help by showing the way — but in fact, only an occasional one does so.

9. It is entirely possible for the European countries, despite their enormous abundance of experiences and abilities, to marginalize themselves.  Whether this relates to the variability of the world's currencies, or simply the interactions of power politics among the world's dominant countries in the 21st century, or is a matter of the Near and Middle East, Iran, Iraq or Afghanistan, or about reducing and eliminating armaments: the European countries and their EU have in fact largely become submissive to the overall guidance of America.  In practice this means: they have largely submitted to a leadership which in turn is crucially dependent on the internal political developments in the USA.  The next presidential election is due in less than two years!  The North Atlantic Treaty is and remains in force.  The NATO, on the other hand, a gigantic military-diplomatic-bureaucratic organisation, since 1990 has been searching for an enemy, but so far has found only Al-Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

10. The European countries as a whole, however, in the very next decades will be dealing not only with strategies regarding external politics and with structural problems of the European Union, but also with a shrinkage of their populations while they simultaneously grow older than before.  In all European countries, therefore, a stepwise postponement of the retirement age will become necessary. Hence renewal and reconstruction of the labour markets, vocational education and governmental social services will be unavoidable.

I consider the European welfare state to be the greatest cultural achievement that we Europeans have managed in the course of the 20th century.  But I must add: in case the welfare state should be endangered, the wholesale agreement of the European nations regarding their democracy would be endangered.

The adjustment of our welfare-state institutions will trigger conflicts everywhere.  Perhaps in France about the declared target of making the 62nd birthday the day when retirement begins, or perhaps in Germany about Agenda 2010 and Hartz IV.  In any case, every scientifically educated social politician should know that in Europe as a whole we must endure these conflicts and guide the community, step by step, to a constructive outcome.

11. This set of joint European problems (which finds parallels worldwide only in the Russian federation and in Japan) will be made worse by the predictable migration pressure directed towards Europe from outside, mainly from other continents and quite different civilisations.  Overpopulation in large parts of Africa, the Middle East and Asia has already resulted in a high degree of immigration, for which almost nowhere in Europe has been adequately prepared.  The largely open nature of the outer boundaries of the EU, as well as the general freedom to move about within the EU, from Finland to southern Italy are raising internal political problems for which none of the European countries has yet been adequately prepared.

Freedom of travel for people who have grown up in a European civilisation should by no means be criticised.  In history, it has almost always functioned well in almost all European countries.  In contrast, immigration from completely different civilisations or cultures is in many cases associated not only with ghetto formation and other forms of segregation but also with more claims for social benefits and increased crime.  This is not a matter of apparently foreign genes, but of cultural and traditional aspects of a foreign civilisation, being raised by foreigners to learn foreign socialisation and acculturation.

In so far as Samuel Huntington should prove correct in his prognosis of the clash of civilisations, this political problem within the European countries will continue to increase.

12. I present this not in order to make the future of Europe even more obscure than it already is.  In contrast, I have a request or a suggestion for you all; here I direct myself not particularly to the Max Planck Society, but to scientists of all disciplines.

We need a large inter-European, interdisciplinary research plan with the first task of investigating how the internal and external development of the EU can proceed during the first half of the 21st century, and with the second task of presenting suggestions for a thriving development.  This requires not only facts and reasonable understanding of them, but also an ability for empathy, imagination and practical good sense.  It is a matter of researching the bases for the self-assertion of the European civilisation in a rapidly changing world.

Science and Politics

13. The freedom of such research goes without saying.  Since the Enlightenment in the sense of Immanuel Kant has also become established in Germany, I cannot detect any danger to the freedom of science and research, at least in my own country.

However, I do recognise the possibility that freedom can be misused — from poison gas in the First World War through genetics and on to the Holocaust in World War II — then up to atomic weapons, to space travel as an instrument for world domination, and to the cloning of organisms — hopefully never of human beings.

It was with great interest, therefore, that I read the "Rules of the Max Planck Society for responsibly dealing with the freedom and risks of research" in the year 2010.  I'd like to quote a core sentence: "Knowledge of the possible risks is the prerequisite for being able to perform research responsibly."  Obviously, and particularly in the areas of so-called dual-use research, dilemmas will inevitably arise.  It impressed me from a moral viewpoint that the Max Planck Society declared the "Renunciation of irresponsible research" to be the "ultima ratio".  Of course, this general bit of advice is not much help to the individual researcher in a specific dual-use situation.  Because his problem at the outset is: does he have an adequate overview, does his long-term vision go far enough?

Many scientists carry out their research for their own sake.  Research is at least the second most important aspect of their lives; in many cases their own research is the most important of all.  Lagging behind is the consciousness of their responsibility for the common good.  Probably an acceptance of responsibility for the common good is by far the most strongly developed in medical research.

But I'll gladly concede: since I presented to the MPG my thesis on the Bringschuld of science (duty of the scientists to inform the public about new insights), more than 30 years ago, the MPG has become more open to public opinion in diverse ways.  Its many offerings are praiseworthy, in my opinion.  However, I cannot discern whether and to what extent this praise also applies to the other leading science organisations.

At the time this was countered by the argument that there was simultaneously a Holschuld of politics (duty of the politicians to consult scientists) — and that is still correct!  The German national parliament does indeed make decisions about most of the financing of scientific research in the budgetary laws it passes, but profound discussions about questions of research and science are rare, and usually have no effect on society.  For instance the Bologna Plan, which fundamentally affects the life of the universities, was not passed by either the German or the European parliament.  Government and politics fulfill their Holschuld only in a very inadequate manner.

Thankfully, since then the technical universities have been relatively undisturbed by bureaucratic or political interference.  This applied even to the old DDR, because it is difficult to ascribe ideologies to particular technologies — quite unlike many of the philosophical disciplines or those of economics or art.

I noted a relevant quotation from a neurobiological lecture by Wolf Singer: "Influence and the power to give orders must legitimize themselves by competence" — yes, if it were actually possible anywhere in the world to merge power with intellectual competence!  The distribution of power is controlled largely by statutes; the institutional qualifications in the EU are controlled largely by treaties and laws.  Intellectual competence, however, cannot be enforced by rules — and the same applies to the awareness of responsibility.  One must be trained to accept responsibility for fellow humans, fellow citizens or society in general.  For this people need good examples and mentors who are personally known.

14. In this regard one can ask whether the extraordinary fragmentation of the leading organisations in German science and research, in addition to their fragmented financing, is really sensible.  At the peak is the MPG, with 80 institutions, 23,000 people and a total of 1.4 billion euros per year, currently a research combine that acts transnationally and receives half its financing from the government of Germany and half from the individual German Länder.  Next to it is the Helmholtz Society with its major research institutes, 90% of which in financed by the German government.  Next come the Leibniz Society with 30 institutes, dually financed, the Fraunhofer Society and — for university research — the German Research Foundation.  Other organizations are the Rektorenkonferenz, above all the permanent Secretary of the Kultus-Minister-Konferenz, and the KMK itself, as well as the Wissenschaftsrat.

Decisions about reearch, science, teaching and their financing thus involve not only the Bundestag and the Bundesregierung (with several federal ministries in charge of research), but likewise all 16 German Landtage and Landesregierungen (some of which have more than one ministry in charge of research and teaching).  Similarly, the above-cited major autonomous organisations for science and research are simultaneously involved in these decisions.  Otherwise one would have to consider it justified that the Wissenschaftsrat recently proposed to open at least the Ressort-Forschungs-Einrichtungen financed individually by multiple federal ministries for collaboration with the universities and with other research institutions.  But naturally that would be merely a preliminary, small step towards efficiency and thrift.  In principle experience applies: every mixture of financing arrangements leads not only to squabbling about which of the bureaucrats is in charge, but also to a waste of funds at the expense of the taxpayer.

15. Because the foreseeable development of the world will force us, as Europeans and Germans, to expend much more effort and also more money in the areas of kindergarten, school, higher education as well as professional changes, science and research, it seems desirable to me that we impose some austerity on all these areas.  In the process, transparency to the public will become ever more important.  Without adequate clarification and explanation the trust of the voting public could be lost — and with it the tax-paying citizens' trust in their institutions.  Even today a considerable mistrust is being directed, for example, against the genetic manipulation of useful plants and animals, or that of human stem cells, or against the previously unimaginable manipulations made possible by the rapidly developing but opaque electronic technologies.

Maintaining a distance from politics as is done, for instance, by the Max Planck Society is very understandable to me and I am also quite sympathetic.  But one must make a clear distinction.  I'm referring here to the distance from the everyday, street-corner party politics.  In contrast to this is the responsibility shared by science for the further development of humanity in the 21st century.  This shared responsibility extends from stem-cell research and technology to astrophysics, from climate politics to the possibilities raised by a clash of civilisations.  Because almost any kind of basic research will sooner or later find practical application.  Hans-Ulrich Gumbrecht recently cited refusing to be oriented towards applications as one of the conditions to be thanked for the flowering of German sciences in the 19th century and until 1933.  But he was quite right subsequently to remind us of some of the worst consequences of an application-oriented attitude.

After two world wars, after Auschwitz, after Hiroshima, after a worldwide increase in the numbers of loathsome dictatorships during the 20th century, for the new century what matters to me is that we should be aware of responsibility for the consequences.  I am concerned about the long view, about an ability to make judgements in view of the undesired but still possible consequential effects.

The relationship between basic research and practical application was always self-evident in medicine or in the engineering sciences.  Such relationships will continue to increase.  In the process it could be that the advances of both the international network of basic research and also the likewise interlinked practical applications thereof will be more likely to occur too rapidly than too slowly.  Whatever happens — in any case the MPG and its institutes must continue to belong to the very first class in the new century.  And for this you, ladies and gentlemen, require a solid basis in your own homeland.

[The End!]