"I see the new assignment as an adventure and a change of perspective"

Interview with Ulman Lindenberger, the new Vice President of the Human Sciences Section of the Max Planck Society

July 09, 2020

Ulman Lindenberger has been Director of the Center for Lifespan Psychology at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin since 2003. Since 2014, he has also been Joint Director of the Max Planck UCL Centre for Computational Psychiatry and Ageing Research, together with Ray Dolan from the Wellcome Centre for Human Neuroimaging at University College London. His research investigates cognitive development across the lifespan, with a focus on plasticity and its limits. In 2010, the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (German Research Foundation) awarded him the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize. From July 1, 2020, Lindenberger takes on a new role as Vice President of the Human Sciences section of the Max Planck Society. In this interview, he explains what motivated him to take on the new challenge and outlines some of his goals for his term of office.

What made you accept the offer to become Vice President? After all, it’s going to mean a lot of hard work.

Ulman Lindenberger: To begin with, there’s a sense of duty. The Max Planck Society has played a large part in my scientific career, and I’d like to give something back. And the challenge appeals to me. I see the new role as an adventure, a change in perspective. And, finally, I’m confident that the President and we three Vice Presidents will work together well as a team.

You’ve already had a chance to test the water on a joint retreat with all three new Vice Presidents and your predecessors.

That’s right. And I’d like to take this opportunity to say a big thank you to my predecessor, Angela Friederici. We’ve spoken many times, and she’s talked me through the many tasks and procedures involved in the job. This onboarding process began last year; the corona crisis made it a little more difficult but not impossible. I won’t be jumping in at the deep end. I think I have a good impression of what’s in store for me – or at least half of it. 

Then let’s start with that half. One area of responsibility you’re taking over from Angela Friederici is the Minerva Stiftung, which promotes scientific cooperation between Israel and Germany. Have you ever been to Israel?

Yes, I’ve been to Israel several times. I’ve been able to spend several days getting to know both Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv particularly captured my attention. I think many Berliners feel that way when they come to Tel Aviv and discover all the Bauhaus architecture and the cosmopolitan atmosphere, with bonus of having the Mediterranean on the doorstep.

I’m deeply impressed by the Minerva Foundation, its history and its current work. The Foundation offers a wide range of instruments for promoting scientific collaboration between Germany and Israel. I have high expectations of this part of my new role, although it probably will be a while until I’m able visit Israel given the corona pandemic and the strict travel restrictions at the moment. I’m particularly looking forward to catching up with my colleague Alon Chen [editor’s note: previously Director at the MPI for Psychiatry] and working with him in his role as President of the Weizman Institute.

Another country that’s difficult to visit at the moment is Great Britain, home of the Max Planck Centre you run together with University College London.

Yes, that’s right. But scientific collaborations are growing and flourishing, despite Brexit and corona. Researchers on both sides of the Channel are determined to continue working together. When the political situation is difficult, research organizations have a particular responsibility. That thinking was very much apparent when the Wellcome Trust and the Max Planck Society met in Munich last year.

Are you afraid that the Max Planck Center will suffer financially if Britain leaves the European Union with no deal at the end of the year? The outlook for universities that rely on tuition fees for funding isn’t at all bright in the wake of the corona crisis.

As far as our Center in London is concerned, I am not particularly worried – in part because it can rely on sizeable third-party funds. But I do agree that there is a general problem. Private universities, in particular, including highly respected ones, may well get into financial difficulties, which may in turn have adverse effects on joint projects. Max Planck Centers operate on the principle of matching funds. It is not in our purview to make up for structural deficits at the partner site. But we should always strive to find solutions that serve the purpose of scientific collaboration.

What are the prospects for Max Planck Centers in a Europe without Britain?

The criteria for establishing and continuing a Max Planck Center are scientific excellence and fit. The Centers are distributed all over the world, with some regional clustering in the UK and on the East and West coasts of North America. If the twin criteria of scientific excellence and interest in collaboration are met, the establishment of further Centers in other parts of Europe and the world would be a welcome development.

What are your main goals for your three-year term as Vice President?

One goal is to strengthen the Max Planck brand. Time and again, I meet colleagues abroad who know the Max Planck Institute working in their field of research and hold it in high regard. But they are often unaware of the existence of the Max Planck Society. We should reflect on how we can strengthen Max Planck as a society – and this question also touches on our identity as Scientific Members of that society. How can we succeed in promoting the Max Planck Society as a whole, beyond specific institutes?

That’s something that we in the Communication Department have been thinking about for years. Naturally, banal though it sounds, it starts with specific brand designs, such as the visibility of our logo, the Minerva.

I agree. I think it’s important that the Minerva emblem figures prominently on brochures and Institute websites. And, of course, it helps to have a shared design for our websites. Most Institutes have now switched over to the new design, and I am sure that we will all benefit from it.

And your other goals?

Innovation. Our selection procedures, including those in place for recruiting Scientific Members, generally work very well when we recruit in a field where we are already established and have the relevant expertise. But I think we need to be more inventive in finding procedures to help us identify the best scientists and scholars in fields where we’re not yet as well established.

One approach might be to build on what was learned after German reunification, when new institutes were founded in the former East Germany. At that time, there was a great deal of pressure to identify suitable topics within a short period of time. To expedite this process, researchers from outside the Max Planck Society were asked for advice. For example, the idea for the MPI for Evolutionary Anthropology, which has been a great success story, came from Professor Durham from Stanford.

Yes, that’s a very good example. Experts from outside the Max Planck Society can sometimes team up with us in coming up with a foundational idea for an Institute. I’m keen to increase the variance in topics and themes covered, to go beyond the range currently represented in our Society.

Are there already specific proposals for your section?

I’m looking forward to working with Ulrich Becker, the Section Chair. We both want to make sure that there’s sufficient time to discuss key topics in depth at Section meetings. That’s always a challenge when agendas are bursting at the seams. Our Section represents a wealth and variety of science and scholarship; that’s a rich soil for creativity and fruitful exchange.

I’m also looking forward to strengthening collaboration across section boundaries. Some fields of research cut across all three sections – for example, there’s neuroscience in the Biology & Medicine Section, cognitive neuroscience in the Human Sciences Section, and Artificial Intelligence in the Chemistry, Physics & Technology Section. These three fields are closely connected at the level of modeling and theory development, and numerous joint initiatives and collaborative projects are already underway. But I think we can do more.

That would be something you’d discuss with the other Vice Presidents, of course.

Yes, and I’m looking forward to that too. And another topic I’m passionate about is sustainability. Klaus Baum has brought this topic to the top of the agenda, and I agree with him that it is critical. How can we ensure that our buildings and our research are sustainable? This touches on very practical questions, such as reducing conference travel or using waste heat from equipment. Quite often, the more sustainable alternative also turns out to be the more cost-effective one once externalities are taken into account. Questions of sustainability cut across everything we do, and should be more strongly reflected in our day-to-day operations – right through the guidelines laid down in our Organisationshandbuch.

Sustainability also plays a role in brand communication. It has already been strategically used by US universities, such as Stanford. Excellence and sustainability are not mutually exclusive. Two years ago, the Times Higher Education supplement conducted its own sustainability ranking for universities.

That’s news to me. Good to know!

Sustainability is certainly also a key issue for our younger generation of scientists. Which brings us to the next topic: advancing the careers of young scientists. How important is that for you?

Providing excellent support for young scientists is the lifeblood of the Max Planck Society. I welcome the recent changes and the new programs introduced to ensure better support and funding for young scientists. As a member of the commission led by Bill Hansson, I was actively involved in bringing about these changes. The Max Planck Society needs to attract the best doctoral students. At the same time, it’s important that the increasing codification of doctoral supervision doesn’t give doctoral students and their supervisors the impression that a perfectly organized system can guarantee the successful completion of a dissertation. That kind of expectation might weaken the sense of agency – the feeling of being able to achieve something through one’s own actions. Completing a dissertation is often not easy, even under ideal conditions, because science and scholarship are demanding. But if the doctoral student and their supervisor work together to overcome these difficulties, they can ultimately be proud of the result.

A final few words?

I’m excited about the new role! And I’m looking forward to working closely with my colleagues in the President’s Council and the Perspectives Council, as well as with the General Administration staff. I know many of them from my time as Section Chair, and I value their expertise and knowhow very highly.

The interview was conducted by Christina Beck.

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