Tireless champion of science and great intellectual leader

Hubert Markl - former President and Honorary Member of the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft - has died

January 09, 2015

He was a man who never took the easy way out, who made his feelings known with wit and eloquence: Hubert Markl left a lasting mark on the Max Planck Society as its President from 1996 to 2002. The university teacher and science manager has died after a long illness at the age of 76 years in Konstanz. "We have lost an eloquent representative of German science, who provided an important impetus to the internal reform of the Max Planck Society", said current president Martin Stratmann, paying tribute to his predecessor.

The Max Planck Society knew very well whom it had hired when Hubert Markl became President in 1996: an experienced science manager, politically savvy and assertive. At this time, the biologist had already left the University of Konstanz over a decade ago, where he had held a professorship since 1974. In 1986, he had decided to take leave and exchange a scientific career for a leadership position at the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft. In 1993, he took up the Presidency of the newly founded Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences, and in 1996 the Senate of the Max Planck Society finally elected him as its top research organizer. He was and remains to this day the first Max Planck President who was not previously Scientific Member of the Max Planck Society.

Perhaps this was the reason he managed to pass the first hurdle of his term, which he already encountered at the beginning. It was a time of change when Markl took the helm of the Max Planck Society as its President in 1996: six years after reunification, right in the middle of the efforts to reconstruct the former East Germany. The Max Planck Society did not have the financial scope for change. Savings had to be made at existing Max Planck institutes, money had to be invested in new institutes. In a tremendous act of will, the new President reduced and closed departments and institutes. But he was also able to set new courses in research with the appointment of 153 Directors.

That was when his reputation as a "tough character" was cemented. Those who feared his razor-sharp style of argumentation tried to stay out of his way. Those who dared could debate with him – and work well with him. "I'm sure I was sometimes fierce and impatient," he admitted on the occasion of his 70th birthday. But he said it was always objective. "I wanted to keep up the high performance expectations at the Max Planck Society."

In this he succeeded. "In difficult times, he steered the organisation through stormy waters with a wealth of experience and with great eloquence," says Wolf Singer, at that time Chairman of the Scientific Council and Director at the Max Planck Institute for Brain Research. Ultimately, he mastered the crisis with confidence, successfully enforcing unpopular measures, Singer says with admiration.

In March 1997, Hubert Markl managed to enforce the closure of two institutes and the reduction of another one by 50%. On the other hand, he was allowed to act as a "midwife" for several institute foundations in the five new German states. This process had been initiated in Eastern Germany by his predecessor Hans Zacher. Markl could now take into operation such interdisciplinary institutions as the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. He called this a "great awakening", which, however, he felt had gone largely unnoticed by the public. The reason for this, said Markl to a journalist afterwards, was probably that the foundation process within the Max Planck Society was similar to the birth process in elephants: these have a relatively long gestation period, which ends in the birth of an almost completely finished elephant.

Never taking the easy way out proved an "impressive push towards rejuvenating the Max Planck Society", as Peter Gruss put it in a speech to mark the 70th birthday of his predecessor. Markl also succeeded in furthering the advancement of talented young scientists: he founded the International Max Planck Research Schools. Since the year 2000, the number of doctoral students researching at Max Planck institutes has risen enormously, with the vast majority of the recent graduates coming from abroad. G. Wegner, Vice President under Markl and Director Emeritus of the Max Planck Institute for Polymer Research says looking back: "These Graduate Schools have an even greater importance than previously believed."

And here, too, Markl's "remarkable persistency" paid off, remembers Klaus Hahlbrock, Emeritus Director of the Max Planck Institute for Plant Breeding Research, and also Vice President at the time of Markl's Presidency. "With his desire to not beat about the bush and his ability to grasp things very quickly, he achieved a lot for the Max Planck Society." After all, negotiations with other research organizations and universities were quite difficult, says Hahlbrock. Just like Gerhard Wegner, he believes that Markl's prime motivation was a consistent commitment to continuous quality improvement and quality assurance in the Max Planck Society. The introduction of a comparative evaluation of the Max Planck Institutes also served this goal, believes Wegner. Markl put the work of the advisory boards of the institutes to the test and introduced standard assessment categories.

When the decision was made to examine and thereby come to terms with the history of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society in the Third Reich, it proved to be a bold retrospective. Hubert Markl appointed an independent Presidential Committee to research the transgressions of scientists and publish the findings. On 7 June 2001, he invited survivors of medical experiments and publicly admitted the guilt which the scientists of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society had brought down on themselves with their expulsion of Jewish colleagues and their involvement in Nazi crimes. "This was a touching moment," remembers Wegner. He has great admiration for Markl for providing the impulse to disclose the amalgamation of science and ideology. In Wegner's view the description and documentation of these effects is a great achievement of Markl's.

Whether it was on the freedom of stem cell research, the protection of biodiversity or good biology lectures – Hubert Markl always was a strident spirit who was not afraid of conflict and who consistently took a stance. If it had to be, even against the Federal President. In his speech at the 2001 Annual Meeting of the Max Planck Society, as "citizen Markl", he contradicted John Rau's statements on preimplantation genetic diagnosis and joined in the stem cell debate conducted in the Year of Life Sciences. "He did not mince his words and had this great skill of formulating facts in such a way that they were afterwards entirely clear," says Gerhard Wegner.

Markl also did not hesitate to make his feelings known when capable scientists were leaving Germany to go and work at American universities just as an Excellence Initiative had been launched in German universities or there was a massive shortage of young engineers coming up through the ranks. His outspokenness is greatly appreciated by the current President of the Max Planck Society, Martin Stratmann. "Hubert Markl was one of the most distinguished science managers in recent decades. Through his eloquence and his intelligent contribution both in speech and in writing he represented science at the highest level. At the same time, during his Presidency he provided the impulses for transforming the Max Planck Society, which have shaped the organization significantly to this day. "


Biographical notes

Markl was born on August 17, 1938 in Regensburg. After his A-levels, he studied biology, chemistry and geography at Ludwig-Maximilian-University in Munich. His teachers included such renowned scientists as Martin Lindauer, Hansjochen Autrum and subsequent Nobel Laureates Konrad Lorenz and Karl von Frisch. He obtained his doctorate at Munich in 1962 in the field of zoology, whereupon he spent a year working as an assistant professor. A research residency in 1965 took him to the US, where he spent time at Harvard, New York's Rockefeller University and the Tropical Research Station of the New York Zoological Society. He submitted his dissertation for his postdoctoral lecturing qualification on the "Communication behaviour of social insects" to the University of Frankfurt am Main in 1967.

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