Filling young scientists with enthusiasm for the other country

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

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.

You mentioned reforming the Centers Programme. What will the Minerva Centers of the future be like?

My image of the Minerva Centers of the future is as hotspots of science, dedicated to conducting outstanding, highly visible and interdisciplinary science and addressing the scientific issues of the future, while not being restricted to the mainstream research landscape. Centers focusing on the humanities will continue to be of key importance. Other Centers will work on both the humanities and the natural sciences in symbiosis. One example of this is the "Minerva Center for interdisciplinary Studies of the End of Life", inaugurated last year, which bridges the gap between medicine and the social sciences and law.

We want the Minerva Centers of the future to be hotbeds of science: fertile ground for additional cooperation and projects not financed by the Minerva Foundation; but also fertile ground for students in Israel and Germany who feel drawn to the Centers and wish to carry the message of scientific cooperation between the two nations into the next generation.

How do you see the future of cooperation with Israel in general?

Our cooperation with Israel will change in the future. Israel is already an important and successful element in the European research landscape. Its best institutions and universities are the equals of the best institutions in the rest of Europe. For Germany, and especially for the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft, it is important to establish a network of outstanding scientific institutions to make sure that Europe occupies a top spot in the Champions League of science over the long term. This objective will also bring both of our countries close together, given that we both feel an obligation to the same goals of scientific excellence.

Do you have a personal wish that you would like to fulfil in this context?

The history of the past decades has shown us that science can unite; it can even unite countries like Germany and Israel, separated after the Holocaust by a deep, seemingly unbridgeable rift. My own personal wish would be for the Minerva Foundation to contribute in a similar way to bring scientists from Israel and its neighbours into a scientific dialogue. New Minerva Centers have very interdisciplinary topics and it would be wonderful if we could establish a transnational Minerva Center.

Thank you for taking the time to talk to us!

Interviewer: Claudia Kahmen.

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