Heinz A. Staab

President of the Max Planck Society from 1984  to 1990

A portrait by Hans-Gerhard Husung

"Science is a dynamic process to which organisational structures in the sciences must adapt over and over again. To refuse to accept change is, for a scientific organisation, the first step down the path towards irrelevance." This is how Heinz A. Staab summed up his defining experiences as a scientist, and his understanding of the tradition and mandate of the Max Planck Society in 1986 on the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society.

His own scientific interests matured in the course of his studies at Marburg, Tübingen and Heidelberg and led him to obtain doctorates in both chemistry and medicine. Hans Meerwein, Rolf Huisgen, Adolf Butenandt and Georg Wittig were among his academic teachers. Special perspectives on science and its organisation are connected with Richard Kuhn and the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research in Heidelberg. Having been appointed to Heidelberg University in 1962, Staab assumed responsibility for continuity and change in particularly stormy times as Dean of the Faculty of Mathematics and Science in 1968 and the Vice Chancellor of Heidelberg University in 1969.

His more than ten-year involvement with the committees of the German Research Foundation began at the same time. As Chairman of the Research Committee, he contributed to the dialogue between science and politics in the German Science Council from 1976 to 1979 in a bid to help alleviate the pressures on the university and to overcome the looming financial stagnation for the research world.

The Max Planck Society appointed him a Scientific Member in 1974 and Director of the Organic Chemistry Department at the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research in Heidelberg. More than two decades of continuous publications at the MPI are evidence of his successful research work.

From the office back to the lab

Even as President of the MPG, Staab did not want to deny himself active research experience. This linking of his own active research in the MPI with the overarching perspectives and tasks of the President informed his perception of the office. The start of his presidency in 1984 was much influenced by persistent financial stagnation. At the same time he had to safeguard the decisions that had been made regarding renewal, which were the living expression of the MPG's inner vitality and responsibility for innovative research. The Nobel Prizes for Georges Köhler in 1984, Klaus v. Klitzing in 1985, Ernst Ruska in 1986 and Robert Huber, Hartmut Michel and Johann Deisenhofer in 1988 served to emphasise the international renown of the MPG in these years. The 75th anniversary of the Kaiser Wilhelm/Max Planck Society in 1986 presented a welcome opportunity to demonstrate these strengths to policy-makers and the public in striking fashion.

The era of National Socialism could not be left out of the historical reflection on the great scientific achievements. Outstanding scientific successes like those that found expression in the Nobel Prizes awarded in the 1936 – 1944 period to Peter Debye, Richard Kuhn, Adolf Butenandt and Otto Hahn showed that the principles of science were upheld even in those years. "But we cannot look back at this time without noting that there were also scientists in the Kaiser Wilhelm Society who misused their science for political purposes to the detriment of mankind." With this acknowledgement of science's responsibility for humanity, Staab paved the way for the gradual process of scientifically examining and thereby coming to terms with what happened in science under the Third Reich.

From the anniversary and the urgent appeal for an end to budget stagnation, the political road led to the education summit of December 1989: back in the autumn of 1986 the German states had held out the prospect of a special increase in the budget, which was delivered in 1988. The German Chancellor's education summit attended by the Minister-Presidents of the federal states and the leaders of research organisations in Germany produced an increase in the budget spanning several years – the trend had been reversed and there was now planning security. This success for the MPG was one of the reasons why Staab, feeling that he had done his duty, decided not to put himself forward for a second term in office in 1990 and to focus increasingly on his research work once more.

New institutes and new appointments

One of the focuses of Staab's presidency was the appointment policy: 54 appointments – about a quarter of all Scientific Members – were on the agenda as an important contribution to safeguarding the Society's inner capacity for renewal and autonomous quality development. This was frequently accompanied by plans for the targeted expansion of existing institutes, such as Brain Research, Meteorology, Solid State Research, Metals Research and Immunobiology. It was possible to dramatically extend the opportunities for educating young scientists; the Junior Research Groups as an innovative structural element for the encouragement of early independence were permanently enlarged. New initiatives were undertaken with the foundation of the MPI for the Study of Societies in Cologne, the establishment of the Research Groups for Structural Molecular Biology at the German Electron Synchrotron (DESY) in Hamburg, the Max Delbrück Laboratory in Cologne, the Clinical Research Group for Rheumatology in Erlangen and the Project Group for Cognitive Anthropology. The decision to found the Max Planck Institute for Informatics in Saarbrücken was taken; plans for the Max Planck Institute for Marine Microbiology in Bremen and the Max Planck Institute for Terrestrial Microbiology in Marburg were initiated.

Upholding the MPG's special relationship with the German Academy of Natural Scientists (Leopoldina), of which Staab had been a member since 1974, was a matter of personal concern to him as a way of opening up at least a little latitude for scientists in the GDR and of maintaining their link with the international scientific community. When new possibilities suddenly presented themselves in the autumn of 1989, the traditional principles of the MPG remained the chief guideline, accompanied by immense receptiveness to new opportunities for development. The same applied to the relations with the Academy of Sciences of the GDR, though Staab did not see this organisation as a pillar of a future development with these principles as its basis.

The principles of free basic research were an international value system for the scientist and President Heinz A. Staab. As a bond promoting peace and democracy, science has repeatedly been able to pave the way for political developments, as demonstrated by the MPG's early engagement in Israel with the Weizmann Institute and China with the Chinese Academy of Sciences. This was the motivation with which Staab got involved in many international scientific committees, for which he received national and international recognition. Heinz A. Staab died in Berlin on 29 July 2012 at the age of 86.

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