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.

How does the MPG prevent potential misconduct and abuse of science?  

Peter Gruss: Even before the Presidential Commission of the MPG investigated the role of the KWS in the Third Reich, the MPG has always been very alert to possible misconduct in science. Scientists and researchers carrying out basic research at the frontiers of knowledge should always be aware of ethical boundaries. With this in mind, we set up a panel and implemented regulations specifically dedicated to this problem. The Ethics Council under the chairmanship of Prof. Rüdiger Wolfrum examines topical questions of research ethics within the Max Planck Society. Currently, EU regulations for the protection of animals used for scientific purposes, synthetic biology and nanotechnology are on the Ethic Council's agenda. In addition we revised our ""Rules of Good Scientific Practice" last year. In March 2010, our Senate adopted the "Guidelines and Rules of the Max Planck Society on a Responsible Approach to Freedom of Research and Research Risks". Of particular importance are the so-called cases of "Dual Use", the capacity of research results being used for peaceful but also for harmful purposes: for example, findings from materials research and nanotechnology could be misused to develop weaponry, research in stem cells for the creation of hybrids, and new psychological research could lead to the development of new methods of torture, such as “aggressive questioning techniques”. 

How does the Max Planck Society keep a sense of awareness for the Kaiser Wilhelm Society alive? Do international scientists or junior scientists and researchers have any interest in the KWS? 

Peter Gruss: The individual institutes all have a different sense of tradition with regard to the KWS, which depends on the institutes' historical relationship with the Kaiser Wilhelm Society and to which extent they wish to work through their own history. One good example is the Fritz Haber Institute which took the anniversary as an opportunity to examine its changeable history. In an interactive feature, the new web presence of the Max Planck Society describes the history of both organisations; and the newly published volume of photographs and essays "Places of History and Memory" offers new expressions of our relationship with the past. In addition, we are planning to publish a special volume for our Annual Meeting, which will collect the speeches presented at our centenary celebrations, survey the history of our organisation and include research highlights for further reference, but also reflect upon the process of working through our past.

What is the secret of success for the Max Planck Society today?

Peter Gruss: The Max Planck Society was able to build on the successes of the KWS. Both organisations have granted their scientists a degree of freedom that was, and continues to be, highly envied worldwide. The Max Planck Society is a place where the principle "creativity" is lived in daily practice, which is reflected among other things in its 17 Nobel Laureates. Our institutes work as a creative unity – they are large enough to be able to have sufficiently critical mass, but small enough to remain agile "speed boats". The secret lies in the fact that we are dynamic, flexible and willing to continuously change. If a director leaves, we close  his department. If we cannot find a top researcher in a desired field or if a special subject area is changing, we are even prepared to close an entire institute. At the same time, we ensure that the highest quality is always maintained by having our institutes evaluated every two years by more than 700 scientists from all over the world. Such an evaluation system did not exist in the KWS. And furthermore: freedom of thought requires certain financial framework conditions. The treaty on the financing of scientific research institutions, the so-called "Königsteiner Abkommen" of 1949, guarantees us funding by the federal government and states. In addition, it is also ever more the case that donations – most recently raised with the help of our Max Planck Foundation – enable us to provide flexible support to research and to expand our portfolio in an unbureaucratic manner. The Max Planck Society does not carry out contract research, but it is of course of greatest importance to us that the results from our basic research will be translated into practical application. After all, our research seeks answers to the major questions facing humanity in our time, such as fighting epidemics, climate change, or treating depression. This is why we also work with industry, and we have recently found an excellent partner in the Fraunhofer Society, with which we currently have 17 collaborative projects.

In your opinion, what were the greatest challenges for the MPG?  

Peter Gruss: The 1960s were years of enormous growth for the MPG, which continued into the 70s. In 1972, for example, the Institute Centre was established on Nikolausberg, in Göttingen. The same year saw the foundation of a state-of-the-art biochemistry centre in Martinsried, near Munich. German reunification presented another interesting challenge: within just a few years, the Max Planck Society established 18 new institutes, a sub-institute, and a research agency. I also believe that another challenge for the Max Planck Society has been - after decades of an autonomous and successful history - to emancipate itself from the history of the KWS without having to deny its history of continuity and renewal. The foundation for this was our re-evaluation and acceptance of the history of the KWS. And it will be important to see how we succeed in preserving the specifics of the Max Planck Society in a changing national but also international environment. After all, we want to continue our successful basic research in the next 100 years.

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