30 years of the Max Planck Society in Saxony

On September 4, 2023, Minister-President Michael Kretschmer and Max Planck President Patrick Cramer co-hosted a ceremonial event at the Kulturpalast in Dresden, commemorating the 30-year success story of the Max Planck Society in Leipzig and Dresden. Nobel Laureate Svante Pääbo from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig talked about his Neanderthal research.

The foundational history of the Max Planck Society's research institutions in the eastern German states began on July 3, 1990 — just two days after the State Treaty on the Monetary, Economic, and Social Union of the two German states came into force. The first Institute in Saxony, the Max Planck Institute for Physics of Complex Systems in Dresden, started its work in the summer of 1993. Five more Institutes followed suit. Reflecting on this time, the then President of Max Planck Society, Hubert Markl, wrote in the late 1990s: "Creating such innovation across various scientific areas in the Max Planck Society was not only a unique challenge, but also an exciting experience."

A brief outline of the founding history

The first director of the Max Planck Institute for the Physics of Complex Systems was Peter Fulde, a theoretical physicist who had previously served as the director of the Max Planck Institute for Solid State Research in Stuttgart. Fulde had left the GDR in 1956 when he was in his early 20s. He saw establishing a The realisation of this goal, however, proved to be a lengthy journey.

Fulde later shared his experience of the initial press conference, and the great disappointment when Wolfgang Hasenclever, the Secretary General of the Max Planck Society at the time, announced the creation of only 35 new positions - today the Institute has six times as many employees. Above all, it has a unique guest programme: coming from all over the world, guests devote themselves to important and current topics in theoretical physics.

Neuropsychologist Angela Friederici was appointed as the first founding director in the eastern German states in 1993. In an unusual interdisciplinary collaboration, she assumed leadership of the Max Planck Institute for Neuropsychological Research alongside neurologist D. Yves von Cramon. In 2004, following a merger with the Max Planck Institute for Psychological Research in Munich and the subsequent relocation of the Munich department to Leipzig, the institute transitioned into the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences. The institute conducts extensive human studies in the fields of language development, memory formation, and stroke research. In addition to basic research, it also deals with application-oriented questions such as the diagnosis of dyslexia.

In 1995, the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Physics of Solids was founded. Frank Steglich, an accomplished scientist with multiple awards to his name, returned to his hometown Dresden to serve as the founding director. Today, the institute comprises four distinct departments. Claudia Felser, one of the three current Vice Presidents of the Max Planck Society, is a member of the staff. The institute focuses on investigating the electronic and chemical properties of modern solid-state research materials in relation to their purity level and their interactions with external forces.

In the same year, the Max Planck Institute for Mathematics in the Sciences was established in Leipzig. By doing so, the Max Planck Society upheld the longstanding local research tradition and appointed Eberhard Zeidler, a native of Leipzig and a scientist from the local university, as the founding director. In his opening speech for the Institute, Zeidler remarked, "Mathematics is a remarkable supplementary tool of human cognition that enables exploration into domains far removed from their everyday realm of experience." Experience has demonstrated that significant advancements have been achieved both through addressing tangible queries within the natural sciences and through the inherently driven quest for fundamental mathematical structures. Mathematics today serves as both an intellectual challenge and a pivotal technology.

In 1997, with the establishment of the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden, the full sequencing of the human genome was already on the horizon. Knowledge of the entire DNA sequence of various organisms was recognised as a unique opportunity for molecular cell biology. A team of founding directors from Finland (Kai Simons), Italy (Marino Zerial), the UK (Anthony Hyman), the USA (Jonathan Howard), and Germany (Wieland Huttner) aimed to capitalize on this potential. Furthermore, the institute's organizational model was, and still remains, unconventional and distinctive: rather than being divided into departments, research takes the form of a tightly-knit and flexible scientific network, characterized by a minimal hierarchical structure.

Through the establishment of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, the Max Planck Society has inaugurated yet another interdisciplinary institute, uniting scholars from both the natural sciences and humanities. Their shared objective is to delve into a more intricate exploration of human history. This endeavour is pursued through comprehensive comparative analyses encompassing genes, cultures, cognitive capacities, languages, and societal frameworks of both historical and contemporary human populations and groups, alongside comparisons with primates closely related to humans. The institute's founding directors came from Sweden (Svante Pääbo), Switzerland (Christophe Boesch), the USA (Michael Tomasello), and the UK (Bernard Comrie). The institute also became the cradle of a whole new discipline, palaeogenetics, and brought Svante Pääbo the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 2022.

Beacons of Research

"In the future, not everything that has been envisioned or desired will come to fruition, but there is no doubt that the foundations have been laid for positive development prospects for internationally competitive research," Max Planck President Peter Gruss stated in 2003, marking a decade of development efforts. "The Max Planck research institutes established in the new federal states are already recognized globally as beacons of research."

Recent figures prove him right: today, the six Max Planck Institutes comprise nearly 30 research departments with over 2,000 staff members and a cumulative annual budget exceeding 90 million euros. The most outstanding prizes in recent years include the Nobel Prize in Medicine 2022 for Svante Pääbo, the Körber Prize 2022 for Anthony Hyman, the Breakthrough Prizes for Svante Pääbo and Anthony Hyman 2016 and 2022, the Paul Ehrlich and Ludwig Darmstaedter Prize 2011 for Stephan Grill, the Hegel Prize 2009 for Michael Tomasello, and the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize for Angela Friederici, Frank Jülicher, Roderich Moessner, Anthony Hyman und Marino Zerial. In addition, numerous ERC grants from the European Research Council were obtained in Saxony.

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