"I hope that everyone sees me as a positive contact."

Interview with Klaus Blaum, the new Vice President of the Chemical Physical Technical Section of the Max Planck Society

July 09, 2020

Since 2007, Klaus Blaum has been Director of the “Stored and cooled ions” Department at the Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics in Heidelberg. The focal areas of his research are precision experiments on stored and cooled ions and research into elementary processes of molecular ions. He has received a number of awards for his achievements, most recently the Gothenburg Lise Meitner Award in 2016. In 2019, he became a foreign member of the physics class of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, and is the only German member of the Academy in this class. In the same year, he was awarded an “Advanced Grant” from the European Research Council for the second time. As Vice President, Blaum will be responsible for the Institutes of the Chemical Physical Technical Section from 1 July 2020. In this interview, he talks about what he plans to do during his term of office.

You were appointed Director at just 35. Now, you are not even 50, and have become Vice President. Will three years in office be enough for you?

Blaum [laughs]: Oh, that’s a hard question to answer. I’d like to stay in office for six years, but if the President ends his term in three, I’d also like to give someone else the opportunity to take over. His successor would then be able to put together their own vice-presidential team. I’d also like to be able to choose under which President I would serve.

In other words, you’d still be willing to be Vice President for six years, even though you are still fully involved in your active research?

That’s right. However, the other reason is that I’m firmly convinced that despite the large amount of work that the role involves, I’ll still be able to conduct research at a top-level global standard. However, it’s also the case that major conferences in my research area are held every three or four years. If I miss one of them, it’s not such an issue, but if I fail to attend several times, then I have a problem. That’s why the question of whether I continue in the role for three years or six is a justified one. Let’s talk about it again in three years’ time [laughs].

Let’s look at Asia, the region for which you will be responsible as Vice President. Currently, there are very ambivalent reports about the situation in China, and the question of how to deal with China is also a subject of debate in Europe. How well do you know China, and what is your assessment of the situation there from a scientist’s perspective?

I am generally very familiar with the Asia region. I cooperate very closely with Singapore, and for many, many years have collaborated closely with China, as well as with India and South Korea. From students to postdocs, we have been sharing information and ideas with China for 15 years. To date, this has always worked very well. We maintain this exchange purely for scientific reasons. But of course you’re right that we should be cautious in light of the recent reports on the restrictions imposed on freedom of research. With its population of 1.4 billion, China is the biggest country on earth, and when you look at the publications and citation figures, it has now overtaken everyone else. This means that we can’t simply ignore China when it comes to scientific research. In the interest of my own scientific field, I therefore want to maintain cooperation, but also generally to try and be a useful link between the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft and the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

There is intense interest among journalists in the subject of scientific espionage, and social sciences researchers in China are confronted with a large number of problems. How do you want to tackle this issue?

As soon as I’m in office, I want to invite all colleagues across the three sections to join a kind of “China group” to talk about what they have experienced and how they assess the situation there. I want to gain an overall view, both in relation to the humanities and social sciences, but also with regard to biology, medicine, physics and chemistry. The level of danger of scientific espionage or restrictions on freedom of research will differ in the different fields.

You will also be responsible for technology transfer and Cyber Valley. Cyber Valley is one example of knowledge being quickly put to practical use, and where scientific espionage is certainly an issue.

Quite so. Artificial intelligence is one area where the interval in time between basic research and application is extremely short. Here, we need to talk about the form that cooperation can take. What rules need to be clearly defined beforehand? Is this type of cooperation desirable in the first place, or are collaborations already taking place? And if so, the question arises as to how intensive they are. This has to be precisely clarified. I am fairly sure that a lot of thought has already been given to this area. Originally, President Stratmann put China on the agenda for the spring meeting of the Senate, which has unfortunately been postponed. It is likely that the issue will be discussed in greater depth in the autumn, including in collaboration with the industrial sector.

When it comes to digitization, however, as Vice President you want to keep focused on your own organization.

That’s right. One task that goes beyond the usual Vice President’s work, and to which I personally would like to dedicate my time, is “professionalization in administration”. This is not intended as criticism of the current administration, in other words, the Institute Administration and the Administrative Headquarters, but reflects the desire, or rather, the common wish, to develop it further. For me, digitization means, for example, that no leave applications, applications for business travel, travel reimbursement forms, etc. are filled out on paper. Currently, this accounts for excessive use of resources at the MPG. I once made the following calculation for my own Institute: we’re talking about 8,400 copies of leave applications per year that would be absolutely unnecessary if the right systems were in place to process them digitally. We must tackle this issue if we want to remain competitive in the future. Other institutions are already way ahead in this area. For example, at CERN, a digital leave application procedure has been in place for 15 years.

Perhaps corona is actually helping you here, since the current situation is driving digitization forward on many different levels.

Absolutely. As a result of corona, we have seen that suddenly, things can be done digitally, simply as an emergency measure, that were not put into practise before. Even so, of course, the right programmes need to be in place to really reliably implement the processes. I’d go even further, and say that digitization is also helpful when submitting an application, for example. Just imagine: anyone who submits an application to the President can look up the current status online at any time. Has the application been received by the Vice President? Is it already being assessed? Has the assessment procedure been completed? At which meeting of the Presidential Council will the application be discussed? Currently, this information is only given if you ask for it several times. There’s room for improvement here. These options are already available, but the MPG doesn’t make nearly enough use of them. A good example is MAX. The Institutes and the Administrative Headquarters use MAX, but do they also use it in the way intended and in the way they could?

Currently, the MPIs themselves are saying that the catalogue of options in MAX is bigger than what they can accomplish at the first attempt. After all, ways of behaviour also need to be transformed, and that’s a process that takes time. This isn’t just an issue for us; major companies also face the same problem.

A transformation of this nature only works when it is achieved from the bottom up. It really does start with every individual member of staff, who need to be willing to change. The more the burden of work is relieved as a result, the more motivated people will be to play their part in this transformation and to contribute to it. We can’t demand that staff comply with this process from above.

In another project, you’ve already found someone to help fight your cause – Mr. Lindenberger, the new Vice President for the GSHS is very keen to support you when it comes to sustainability.

I know. In the interim, a Presidential Committee on the subject of “Climate protection in the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft – suitable measures and their prioritization” has already been set up, which is headed by Ms. Rauschek and Mr. Bonhoeffer. I’ll therefore first contact both of them. I want to support the presidential committee and not start a parallel project. If you put the figures on the table, the question naturally arises as to why we didn't adopt this form of sustainability and energy efficiency much earlier. At my Institute, we set up an energy committee around 10 years ago. At that time, we had cost increases of 10 percent and more every year, and had to spend a large proportion of our core budget on water, electricity and district heating. That’s why we looked into how savings could be made. In some cases, these were trivial things, such as reducing the district heating temperature in the summer, installing motion sensors for controlling the lighting, converting transformers to reduce power losses, and so on. In the end, we reduced costs by the order of 10 to 15 percent, which today corresponds to around EUR 200,000 per year. If you take the figures for the MPG as a whole, several million euros a year could be saved. And that benefits the Institutes. And that benefits the Institutes. That's the financial aspect, but at the same time, we’re also improving our environmental footprint. That’s why this is such an important issue for me.

Another topic: recently, an alarming report was published claiming that there are not enough new teachers in the MINT subjects. This must be an issue that is also of concern to the MPG.

Quite so. I myself give presentations in schools four or five times a year. The schools find out about my visits by word of mouth and ask me directly whether I’d be interested in talking about my own work. In my view, we all have to do much more to advertise the MINT subjects in schools. After all, the reason for the lack of women in subjects such as physics already starts in school. This situation isn’t only reflected at the very top. On degree programmes, the proportion of women is just 20 percent. Already at this stage, we need to ask why the figure is not 50 percent. We can only achieve this quota if we tackle the problem even earlier. I try to do this through the schools, where I repeatedly promote our subject. I hope that someday, every little bit will count, and we will start to see results. However, overall, it will only work if everyone does their bit.

Young scientists is one thing; appointment outstanding scientists is another. Is the MPG well positioned to attract top talent in the face of global competition?

First of all, appointments are of course a question for the Sections. However, in my view, we need to be able to take up two or three new and highly exciting topics with high visibility and to do it far more quickly than we have done in the past. If you want to take up topics such as quantum computing – and I think this is a suitable subject for the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft – you need the best minds, since that’s the only way we will be able to lead from the top. We therefore need to be able to get excellent people in these fields on board at the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft – and at the same time, within short timescales of one to two years.

Are there other issues that we haven’t talked about?

For me, it’s important to stress that I want to be the link between the Section, the Directors and the President and Administrative Headquarters. I hope that everyone will see me as a good person to contact. The role involves a great many tasks, but there are also some areas, which we’ve discussed, that I’d personally like to pursue further, because I believe that they will be of benefit to the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft overall. Naturally, I hope that the Scientific Members will support me, since only then will the projects be successful. Collaboration with theAdministrative Headquarters is another area that I feel strongly about. I have such a good relationship with the staff members that we can also discuss critical issues – and problems do inevitably arise. I’ve already said that further developing efficiency and excellence in Administration is an important area for me. In the administrative area, too, we will only succeed in attracting good people if we advertise the fact that we conduct the best science. For administration, it’s just as attractive a prospect for everyone to be able to say that they work for the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft, and to the very highest standards. However, to make this possible, the systems and equipment that we provide for Administration must also be of the best quality. And finally, I’m very much looking forward to the forthcoming challenges and to working with everyone.

The interview was conducted by Christina Beck.

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