Peter Gruss


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In discharging their office, all Presidents are guided by their field of expertise and the methods they employed as scientists. A defining characteristic of the microbiologist Peter Gruss is that he constantly seeks out new territory, often blazing unexplored trails but always prepared to retrace his steps or change direction if a path proves unfruitful. This is the hallmark of an experimenter for whom every experiment is an enriching experience – irrespective of the effort put into it and the outcome. Thus, as President of the Max Planck Society, Peter Gruss ventured forth in many directions.

Gruss began his scientific career as a doctoral candidate at the German Cancer Research Centre in Heidelberg, where he investigated oncoviruses. The subsequent time he spent at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the US proved to be a formative period. The young scientist was particularly influenced by the atmosphere at the research campus in Bethesda. The most important factors, Peter Gruss recalls, were “the freedom to ask scientific questions, the possibility to pursue research and the atmosphere teeming with ideas and curiosity. But above all, my American colleagues taught me the attitude that, in research, you should accept no limits apart from your own ability.” In this environment, Gruss carried out a pioneering experiment that led to the discovery of enhancers, elements in cells that amplify the activation of genes and do so in a very specific way depending on the tissue, as Gruss and his team showed for the first time.

Despite the excellent conditions at the NIH, Peter Gruss was drawn back to Germany. His return was prompted by an appointment to Heidelberg University in 1982. Four years later he became a Scientific Member and Director of the Molecular Cell Biology Department of the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen. One of the most important discoveries made there was the function of the Pax6 gene. If the Pax6 gene is defective, mice as well as humans lack a functional eye – a real breakthrough in research into gene regulation. Working on the same principle, the Group discovered another influential gene in the Pax family, namely Pax4. If this gene is absent, mammalian embryos fail to produce functional beta cells, the cells in the pancreas that produce insulin. On this basis, he was also able to differentiate stem cells into insulin-producing cells.

Peter Gruss ranks among the most productive scientists in his field: more than 504 publications bear his name. He has been honoured with numerous awards for his scientific achievements, including the Leibniz Prize of the German Research Foundation, the Louis-Jeantet Prize for Medicine, the Deutscher Zukunftspreis (German President’s Award for Innovation in Science and Technology) and the Lower Saxony State Prize.

Despite his extraordinary scientific success, he answered affirmatively when he was asked if he was available for the office of the Max Planck President. He explained t his decision in his speech at the awarding ceremony for the 2004 Lower Saxony State Prize: “Firstly, it was again the excitement of starting something new. Secondly, it’s a great honour and a challenge to be President of the eminent Max Planck Society. I will now gain insight into the entire spectrum of scientific endeavour. And I’m also able to support all those fields.”

There was also no shortage of challenges. The first acute one arose shortly after he took office when the funding providers froze the budget for 2003 at short notice. Peter Gruss had to impose a consolidation programme that called for significant cuts for the Max Planck Institutes. Subsequently, he was all the more determined in pursuing a reliable financial basis, and his efforts were ultimately crowned by success. In 2005 the German federal government and federal states concluded the first Pact for Research and Innovation for the five main research organisations. In this agreement, the political community promised annual budget increases of three percent for the years 2006 to 2010. Peter Gruss was even able to negotiate a growth of five percent for the period between 2011 and 2015. For the Max Planck Society, this meant above all planning security as well as an opportunity to implement substantial new research.

Peter Gruss was able to launch eight new Max Planck Institutes addressing innovative topics such as the biology of ageing, the physics of light and empirical aesthetics. He also brought institutes under the aegis of the Max Planck Society that are not financed through the central budget. They include the two Max Planck Institutes set up abroad in Florida, USA, and Luxembourg; the Caesar Research Centre, which is financed by foundation funds; and the Ernst Strüngmann Institute, which was endowed by patrons Andreas and Thomas Strüngmann. Gruss was also able to win over patrons and donors for numerous other Max Planck Society projects. In 2006 they set up the Max Planck Foundation, which exclusively supports projects and scientists of the Max Planck Society.

The restructuring of the Max Planck Society also changed existing Max Planck Institutes. Fifteen Institutes were realigned, expanded in their activities or consolidated, and research areas were hived off or combined. The main consideration for Peter Gruss was to recruit outstanding scientists from leading research institutions around the world. More than half of the 204 newly appointed Directors came from abroad, and 40 percent of the new appointees had a foreign passport.

At the same time, Peter Gruss established a long-term strategic development process for the Max Planck Society. All three Sections have set up Perspective Commissions or transformed existing Commissions into think tanks to generate new ideas and concepts in their respective fields. The newly established Perspective Council deals with the scientific concepts and ideas of all three Sections. On the Council, the President, the Vice Presidents and the Chairpersons of the Sections and the Scientific Council jointly discuss and promote new research topics for the entire Max Planck Society. They draft development concepts for existing Institutes and plan new and intersectional projects – always with the aim of acting as pioneers for new areas of research.

Peter Gruss lent additional impetus to innovation by creating a central innovation fund from which the President can award substantial funding to competing Institutes. In this way he was not only able to support unusual research projects and cooperations, but was also able to initiate programmes specifically to further the research careers of junior scientists and women. Some of this funding was used, for example, to greatly expand the International Max Planck Research Schools (IMPRS). The proven programme of Independent Junior Research Groups – later renamed Max Planck Research Groups – was expanded to include open-topic research proposals. This means that young scientists are able to pursue a freely chosen research topic at an Institute of their choice with their own budget – an extremely attractive proposal: In the last round of applications during Gruss’ term, well over 700 young women and men applied for 18 positions.

In addition, Gruss improved the opportunities for women to pursue a scientific career in the Max Planck Society. Thanks to numerous possibilities, such as childcare services, mentoring and the opportunity to gain experience as a Research Group Leader in the Minerva programme, the number of female scientists in leading W2 and W3 positions swelled by more than half between 2005 and 2010 alone.

Peter Gruss’ term of office was also a time of transformation in the German scientific landscape. In the political arena, the view steadily increased that research plays a key role in the country’s prosperity. For this reason, the federal government appreciably increased funding for research – first under Chancellor Schröder and later under Chancellor Merkel. The aforementioned Pact for Research and Innovation as well as the University Pact and the Excellence Initiative helped bring about a vigorous upswing for research and for Germany. The Excellence Initiative specifically strengthened promising research sites and promoted on-site networking, including cooperation between universities and Max Planck Institutes. Above all, however, it created broad acceptance of scientific excellence and scientific elite – a change that also benefited the Max Planck Society. For his part, Peter Gruss furthered cooperation with universities, for example through new Max Planck Research Groups at universities and the Max Planck Fellowship Programme, which gives outstanding colleagues at German universities an opportunity to work at a Max Planck Institute for a limited time.

In parallel with the changes in Germany, the international research landscape also underwent a transformation. Many countries – especially in Asia – began to invest massively in research. The number of university graduates grew worldwide. At the same time, the degree of globalisation in science itself increased: Researchers not only collaborate over increasing distances but are also increasingly prepared to change jobs across borders and continents – wherever they find the best opportunities. This is particularly true of the young generation, which chooses its place of work on the basis of international rankings. High-calibre scientific institutions for their part promoted and continue to promote this trend by becoming globally active.

Peter Gruss also lent his weight to this internationalisation process, thus creating a pioneering role for the Max Planck Society in this area. He stepped up research marketing abroad in order to raise awareness of the Max Planck brand, especially among young people. He achieved this through exhibitions such as the Science Tunnel and the Science Express, but also with the help of social media such as Facebook and Twitter. In addition, the awarding of Nobel Prizes to Theodor Hänsch in 2005 and Gerhard Ertl in 2007 elevated the profile of the Max Planck Society.

At the same time, Peter Gruss expanded the presence of the Max Planck Society in numerous countries. Besides the new Max Planck Institutes in Florida and Luxembourg, Max Planck Partner Institutes were set up in Buenos Aires and Shanghai. He also established 14 Max Planck Centers around the world in cooperation with major scientific institutions. The upshot is that the Max Planck Society is now present from Vancouver to Lausanne, from Princeton to Paris, from Jerusalem to Tokyo. This global commitment of the Max Planck Society was recognized by the Prince of Asturias Award for International Cooperation in 2013.

Another key interest of Peter Gruss was to forge a bridge from basic research to practical application. To this end, he actively reached out to stakeholders from business and industry. Within the Max Planck Society, Gruss strengthened Max Planck Innovation, a subsidiary that channels inventions from the Max Planck Institutes to industry and helps Max Planck scientists to register patents and found companies. Moreover, incubators were created in Bonn, Göttingen, Dresden and Saarbrücken to develop innovative research findings to market maturity. The Lead Discovery Centre in Dortmund, which was set up in 2008 and deals specifically with potential drugs, pursues a similar goal.

Numerous other initiatives are associated with the name Peter Gruss, for example, the expansion of public relations work in the Max Planck Society or the Teaming Excellence proposal that aims to strengthen scientific structures in Southern and Eastern Europe with the help of partner programmes. Or the commitment to ensure open access to scientific findings, which culminated in the Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities in 2003 and the creation of the digital magazine eLife in cooperation with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in the US and the British Wellcome Trust. During the dozen years of Peter Gruss’ presidency, the Max Planck Society became more diverse, more tightly networked on the national stage, more international in its presence and more visible throughout the world.

Following the handover of his office, Peter Gruss has granted himself a break that appears calm only in relation to his hectic schedule during his presidency. Gruss has already embarked on a tour of lectures and talks in Germany, Switzerland, Spain and Mexico. After all, it is hardly conceivable that such an indefatigable personality as Peter Gruss would ever retire in the strict sense of the word. The world of science and research policy has certainly not heard the last of him.

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