Filling young scientists with enthusiasm for the other country

An interview with Martin Stratmann, Scientific Director of the Minerva Foundation

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Martin Stratmann, Max Planck Vice President and Director at the Max-Planck-Institut für Eisenforschung (iron research) in Düsseldorf, has been Scientific Director of the Minerva Foundation for the past three years. Building on the first efforts of the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft to establish scientific relations with Israel after the Holocaust, the Minerva Foundation was set up with funds from the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) in the early 1960s. Its objective and aspiration was to promote scientific excellence in Israel while cementing scientific exchange between Germany and Israel. The Minerva Foundation, traditionally directed by a Vice President of the MPG, now supports a range of specific programmes, such as a special cooperation programme with the Weizmann Institute, a programme to support scientific centers in Israel and a fellowship programme for junior scientist exchange.

Mr. Stratmann, what is the motivation that drives you to dedicate yourself to the Minerva Foundation as its Scientific Director?

I have long been fascinated by Israel and the science that takes place there. It is hard to find another country with a better scientific balance than Israel, considering its size. And this is something that has changed the role of the Minerva Foundation: what we are concerned with today is continuing our work to cement the good scientific, not to mention social, relations between Israel and Germany, and filling the young generation of scientists with enthusiasm for the other country – in spite of, and in full awareness of our problematic past. Scientists in Germany can learn from their Israeli counterpart: from their spirit of optimism, from their unconventional research approaches, which frequently transcend traditional disciplinary boundaries, and from their entrepreneurial spirit, which enables them time and again to make use of findings from basic research to augment the wealth of society. The Minerva Foundation serves as a basis and a support tool for this perpetual exchange of ideas and persons, a task that must be re-embarked upon every time a new generation of scientists comes up through the ranks. Taking responsibility for this – that was what excited me about it!

Can you give us an example of the work you do for the Minerva Foundation?

My most important objective after taking office three years ago was to make the Minerva Foundation fit for the coming years and decades. There had been an evaluation which showed that some of the Minerva programmes had become a bit "long in the tooth" and urgently needed to have their content and administrative structures revamped. So my work in recent years has focused on reforming the Centers Programme. The programme is being completely redesigned. A lot of the old Centers are being closed. The funding that is freed up is going to be used to open new Centers in a competitive tendering procedure. We are currently working with the BMBF on ensuring that the Centers Programme has a solid financial basis for the long term, given that it represents a core element in the scientific cooperation between Germany and Israel, upon which a great many cooperative projects are built.

You and the BMBF and your Israeli partners are planning to stage a joint Minerva Science Festival for the first time in Jerusalem this autumn. What can we expect to see there?

The Minerva Science Festival will mark the peak of our Minerva activities in Israel. We will present the newly chosen Centers to the public, showcase the accomplishments of the Centers already in operation, and also provide the people involved, as well as our affiliates, with an opportunity for close dialogue. Learning from each other, sharing experience, developing plans and ideas for the future: that is what the festival will be about. I am delighted that Annette Schavan, the German Minister of Education and Research, has agreed to be patron of the event. That shows how significant the Minerva Foundation is for research policy in Germany.

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