To envision your future, you have to know your past

Interview with Peter Gruss, President of the Max Planck Society since 2002.

January 10, 2011

Peter Gruss has been President of the Max Planck Society since 2002. He is the seventh President since the Max Planck Society's foundation 62 years ago and is the successor of many renowned scientists, some of whom held the office during the period of the precursor organisation, the Kaiser Wilhelm Society. Prior to taking over the helm of the Max Planck Society, Gruss, a renowned biologist was director at the MPI for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen, the city where the Max Planck Society was founded. In this interview with MaxPlanckJournal, Gruss talks about his relationship with the history of both research organisations.

What significance does this centenary have to you?

Peter Gruss: It is an imperative for the Max Planck Society to remember its roots and the foundation of its predecessor organisation. Understanding our history is of key importance because the Kaiser Wilhelm Society is part of our identity. Its scientific principles of organisation and its reputation for scientific excellence formed the basis for the Max Planck Society's subsequent successful development. At the same time, we must accept responsibility for the ethical transgressions of our precursor institution. Generally, however, our relationship to the Kaiser Wilhelm Society is characterised by renewal: after more than sixty years we have moved beyond the history of the KWS.

How does the Max Planck Society plan to celebrate its anniversary, and what are the focal points of this celebration?

Peter Gruss: We will be celebrating the centenary of our predecessor organisation with a festive event on January 11, the very same date on which the Kaiser Wilhelm Society was founded in 1911. The event will take place in Berlin, which is the foundation city of the KWS. January 11, 1911 marked the beginning of a century of basic research conducted according to the highest global standards. At the same time, this anniversary is an occasion for us to define the position of the Max Planck Society today. It was of central importance for our successful development that the Allies insisted on the dissolution of the KWS in a move designed to ensure that the newly established research organisation would be committed to democratic principles. Today, the Max Planck Society looks back on sixty years of successful scientific research, and has thus been in existence longer than the KWS. In our anniversary celebrations on January 11 we want to emphasise what we have in common but also what distinguishes the two organisations from each other. I am delighted that the former federal chancellor Helmut Schmidt will be talking about "Autonomy and Responsibility in Science" and Rogers Hollingsworth will describe the model for success employed by both institutions. Several Max Planck Institutes are offering presentations and panel discussions to the wider public, which investigate current research subjects within terms of ethical considerations. In addition, a podcast series about Nobel Prize Laureates of the Max Planck Society is also in preparation.

What is the relationship of the MPG to its predecessor organization?

Peter Gruss: Only one quarter of the institutes have their roots in the Kaiser Wilhelm Society. One third of our directors come from abroad. This means that at many institutes, the memory of the KWS is no longer very strong. Personally, I have the greatest respect for many KWS scientists whose research achievements have revolutionised our understanding of the world. In total, 15 KWS scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize. On the other hand, the example of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society shows us that science can be corrupted, as evidenced in the conduct of several scientists in the Third Reich period who transgressed ethical boundaries. It took the Max Planck Society a very long time to come to terms with the fact that it was not only "pure" basic research, independent of the criminal Nazi regime, that was carried out in the KWS, a long and difficult process for the relatives and victims of research carried out on twins and the relatives of those murdered under the Nazis "euthanasia" programme. In light of this history, it is therefore a particular priority for me that today's research must reflect the highest ethical standards. In this respect, it is not only important to look back and learn from the past how to face the future, but also to be aware of the ever present dangers – even if we are living in completely different circumstances today – and finally to establish mechanisms within research which are aimed at "self-control".

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