President of the Max Planck Society from 2014 to 2023
“This post has never been taken on by a scientist so well-versed in the affairs of the Max Planck Society,” attested Peter Gruss when passing the torch to his successor Martin Stratmann in 2014. Stratmann had served as Vice President of the MPG since 2008, after two years as Section Chair. During this time, he mapped out important reforms that would characterize the first few years of his term.
His scientific career led him to Max Planck at an early stage of his life. After studying chemistry at the newly founded Ruhr University Bochum, the young chemist moved to Düsseldorf in 1982, where he pursued his doctoral research under the guidance of Hans-Jürgen Engell at the Max-Planck-Institut für Eisenforschung, a unique Max Planck Institute structured as a limited company (Gmbh) and financed by both the MPG and the steel industry. This period was deeply formative for Stratmann’s scientific development, as he would often emphasize in later years. But it was also crucial for a presidency which placed considerable emphasis on supporting young scientists.
His doctoral supervisor gave him free rein in his choice of research topic, allowing him to work independently and publish his findings with minimal oversight. The chosen subject may have appeared quite mundane: rust, or to put it scientifically, the atmospheric corrosion of iron, a process that was poorly understood at the time, despite its crucial role in technology. Through the utilization of unconventional techniques in his experiments, Stratmann successfully elucidated the fundamental reactions involved in metal dissolution and oxygen reduction, even amidst wet-dry-wet cycles This breakthrough allowed him to elucidate the solid-state reactions occurring during atmospheric corrosion, including corrosion’s influence on electron transfer reactions.
The dissertation earned the young scientist an Otto Hahn Medal from the MPG. The accompanying grant enabled him to spend a one-year research residency in the U.S. at Case Western Reserve University under Ernest B. Yeager, one of the leading electrochemists of his day. On his return to the Max-Planck-Institut für Eisenforschung, Stratmann successfully founded an independent working group focused on corrosion research. He achieved a breakthrough in 1986 with Scanning Kelvin Probe Microscopy (SKPM), a non-contact technique for measuring and mapping electrochemical potential. For the first time, detailed electrochemical studies could be performed on hidden metal-polymer interfaces, which yielded a deeper understanding of delamination processes such as those occurring between paints or adhesives and metal substrates, and later led to the development of self-healing coatings.
In 1994, the University of Erlangen-Nuremberg offered Stratmann the Chair for Surface Science and Corrosion. In 1998, he was offered the Directorship at the Max-Planck-Institut für Eisenforschung, which he ultimately accepted two years later after lengthy negotiations due to the complex structure of the Institute. By 2006, Stratmann had already been appointed Section Chair of the Chemistry, Physics, and Technology Section. And eight years later he became President of the Max Planck Society.
As Stratmann contemplated a second term in 2019, Journalist Jan-Martin Wiarda wrote that this seemingly unassuming President was the best thing that could have happened to the Max Planck Society during these times of unrest, by which he meant the challenges posed by the migrant crisis (2015), the election of Donald Trump (2016), and the impending Brexit. And in fact, there was worse to come: The first pandemic in 100 years (SARS-CoV-2) brought the whole world to a standstill in 2020 and 2021 – and the scientific world was no exception. Trips to scientific conferences were a thing of the past and soon replaced by virtual gatherings; committee meetings could no longer be conducted in person, and foreign researchers, including doctoral students and postdocs, faced stringent travel restrictions to and from Germany. In response, the MPG took initiatives to assist those affected, offering temporary affiliation contracts to scientists unable to work abroad and grants to doctoral candidates stranded in foreign countries. Max Planck Institutes transitioned their operations to remote work as much as possible, necessitating a great deal of improvisation to adapt to the new circumstances.
No sooner had the pandemic come to an end, when a new challenge emerged as Russia launched its war of aggression against Ukraine, compelling the MPG to sever nearly all scientific collaborations with Russia. This had a particularly severe impact on projects that relied on Russian space stations or satellites. Sanctions imposed in connection with the war in Ukraine resulted in energy shortages, and although government aid measures partially alleviated the burden of soaring energy prices, inflation remained high. Consequently, the MPG's budget experienced a significant reduction. And the war displaced millions of people yet again. Under Stratmann’s leadership, the MPG put together an aid package that included fellowships for Ukrainian scientists seeking refuge. Collaborating with the Max Planck Foundation, the MPG also initiated a programme to support researchers who desired to continue their work in Ukraine despite the challenging circumstances.
Despite the constant crisis management, there has been no shortage of scientific impetus. Stratmann firmly believed that the internal reformation of the MPG under Hans Zacher during the eastward expansion of the EU in the 1990s could only have a lasting impact on the MPG if the organization critically assessed the balance between prioritizing existing endeavours and embracing new opportunities during less expansive periods. Consequently, Stratmann directed his attention towards research areas that had been underrepresented at the start of his term at the MPG. The main candidates were computer science, quantum information science, and environmental science.
The goals were to set new thematic priorities, to strengthen networking within the MPG, and to integrate the university environment more closely into the MPG’s planning. As Section Chair, Stratmann played a pivotal role in the reclassification of the MPI for Metal Research in Stuttgart. This led to the creation of the MPI for Intelligent Systems, which served as the foundation for the development of the "Cyber Valley" innovation campus, a collaborative endeavour involving university and non-university partners. Additionally, as part of the ELLIS (European Laboratory for Learning and Intelligent Systems) initiative, a pan-European research network in the field of machine learning was launched. The first ELLIS institute was founded in Tübingen, supported by substantial private funding from the Hector Foundation. The establishment of the MPI for Security and Privacy in Bochum marked another significant milestone achieved under Stratmann's leadership.
In the field of quantum information science, Stratmann played a major role in starting a national programme for the advancement of quantum computers. The programme’s focus within the MPG is the Munich Quantum Valley. In the field of environmental science, the MPI of Animal Behavior was founded in Konstanz, while Jena saw the founding of the MPI of Geoanthropology as a joint institute, bringing together scientists from all three Sections of the MPG to explore the intersection of human activity and the environment through an interdisciplinary approach.
Stratmann accelerated the MPG’s development as an institution with the MPG 2030 Reform Programme. The goal: to develop more efficient campus structures, especially in the field of the life sciences, where research operations rely on platform technologies. This led to the fusion of two MPIs in Göttingen to form the new MPI for Multidisciplinary Sciences. Additionally, the research location in Martinsried underwent a thematic restructuring, involving the fusion of two Max Planck Institutes to establish the MPI for Biological Intelligence.
However, from day one of his presidency, Stratmann had prioritized the welfare and development of early career researchers within the MPG. His notable achievements in this regard include implementing a shift from grants to contracts throughout the Max Planck Society, despite the associated cost of 50 million euros to the MPG. He also introduced new regulations to enhance the support and promotion of doctoral researchers and postdocs, while strengthening the platforms of PhDnet and PostDocnet. Moreover, he played a key role in establishing career pathways through an internal tenure track system within the MPG.
During Stratmann’s Presidency, the MPG developed the Lise Meitner Excellence Programme, the first programme within the MPG to include tenure track as a key supportive element. Stratmann also gave fresh impetus to technology transfer by placing greater emphasis on spin-offs and on supporting a corresponding startup culture at the MPIs through boot camps and other workshop formats.
A crucial aspect of institutional development during Stratmann's tenure was the focus on governance and compliance. Key features included the appropriate handling of mismanagement and abuses of power by directors within the organization and the introduction of both a professional complaint system for MPG employees as well as of a central staff unit within the Audit Department of the Administrative Headquarters, responsible for thoroughly examining and investigating any reported misconduct.
By the end of his term, all procedure steps were consolidated in a reform of the by-laws, resulting in a detailed set of rules for both appointing and dismissing management staff.
Like almost no MPG President before him, wrote Wiarda, Stratmann adopted an approach to his role that transcended the boundaries of the MPG itself. According to Wiarda, Stratmann recognized the signs of these turbulent times and understood that his responsibility to science also encompassed a responsibility to society at large. He himself provided the impetus for the "Freedom is our system" campaign, a nationwide effort in which the ten Alliance of Science Organizations commemorated 70 years of basic law and 70 years of academic freedom. “We must be vigilant against the gradual erosion of academic freedom in Europe before it’s too late,” Stratmann emphasized in April 2017 at the March for Science in Munich. “After all, science is only as free as society as a whole.”
His search for allies wasn’t limited to science, however. He recognized the potential of forging networks and collaborations as a means to unite several diverse elements into one new whole. The Max Planck Schools were one example. Their goal is to consolidate the excellence scattered throughout Germany into promising interdisciplinary research areas, raising their visibility in the process – especially for highly-talented students from abroad. It’s an alliance with universities and other non-university research facilities.
Dioscuri was another example. By supporting excellence centres in Eastern and Central Europe (Poland and the Czech Republic were the sole participants during his term), Stratmann sought to counterbalance the performance gap in Europe. “We have a responsibility to assist the EU13 countries in realising their full potential,” he wrote in a byline article for Die ZEIT. If Europe wants to hold its own in global competition with well-integrated research regions such as the United States and China, he argued, it must become more attractive to scientific talent and shift the brain-drain:brain-gain ratio in its favour in a sustained manner.
But Stratmann was also convinced that the MPG should not limit its search for new partners to Europe’s borders. That’s why at the end of his term he launched a programme directed at Africa in cooperation with the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. It aims to provide support for young African scientists, both financially and through exchange opportunities with Max Planck Institutes working in related fields.
During his time in office, Martin Stratmann was able to congratulate six Max Planck scientists on receiving Nobel Prizes: Stefan Hell, Emmanuelle Charpentier, Reinhard Genzel, Benjamin List, Klaus Hasselmann, and Svante Pääbo. During his farewell address, with an eye to global competition, he delivered a poignant reminder to the audience: "Now more than ever, we need to direct our attention towards excellence. " And: "We must ensure that we have something substantial to offer top talent, both within our society and within the research system."