The Max Planck Society is researching its own history

Research programme is scheduled to run for a seven-year-period

February 19, 2015

In a seven-year research programme, the Max Planck Society intends to investigate every facet of its own history. The research will shed light on the Society’s dynamism as well as its ethical lapses, its missteps and its successes. The research project, based at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science, can now begin its work after the Scientific Advisory Board – with the support of independent external scientists – has succeeded in filling the majority of operational administrative posts.

The idea of researching the history of the Max Planck Society was first initiated in spring 2014 by the then President of the Society, Peter Gruss. The current President, Martin Stratmann, then launched a research programme in June 2014 to study the “History of the Max Planck Society 1948–2002” with the promise of maximum support, and it is this project that has now begun its work. The next seven years will witness a historical investigation of the development of the MPG from its establishment in 1948 through to the end of Hubert Markl’s presidency in 2002.

The object of the research programme is to comprehensively reconstruct the history of the Max Planck Society and place this in the context of temporal and scientific historic developments. The work will also include a study of the continuities in terms of personnel, institutions and scientific history carried over from MPG’s predecessor organisation, the Kaiser Wilhelm Society and its institutes. Following on from the work of the Presidential Commission appointed to study the “History of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society under National Socialism”, the new programme will also investigate the encumbrances left over from the National Socialist past that have weighed on the history of the Max Planck Society, and how the involvement of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society in Nazi crimes was dealt with.

Critical issues, too, will be investigated without reservation

The new project concerns the history of both the Max Planck Society as a whole, as well as of its Institutes, its scientific programmes and working methods, its structures and results. Both successes and failures over the decades will be analysed in equal measure.  The project will also consider numerous points of view: not only of administrators and their administrative methods, but also those of scientific and non-scientific staff, as well as the Society’s own perception of itself, its cooperative efforts and its relationships to industry, society, politics and culture. Critical issues, too, such as the ethical boundaries of research, the dual use issue and external influences will be investigated without reservation. The object here is to create new links between the history of science and contemporary history. “Using the example of the Max Planck Society, the project has the capacity to shed light on the often underestimated importance of the sciences as a potential source of innovation but also a reflection of modern society, as well as the necessity of integrating science into the public discussions inherent in a democracy,” says Jürgen Renn, one of the heads of the research programme.

Focus on change at the Max Planck Society

The research programme will carry out inter-institutional surveys touching on several key subjects in order to investigate the dynamic interactions between research in practice and the history of institutions. The focus will be on change at the Max Planck Society in consideration of its integration into society, science and politics. The competition facing the Society and its learning processes will also come under the microscope, as well as its approach to international and global challenges. One of the central aspects concerns the origination of scientific knowledge, and its interaction in institutional and social contexts.

Based at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, the programme is headed by Professor Jürgen Renn (Max Planck Institute for the History of Science), Professor Carsten Reinhardt (President of the Chemical Heritage Foundation, Philadelphia / Bielefeld University) and Professor Jürgen Kocka (Berlin Social Science Center). The operational administration of the project is in the hands of Dr. Florian Schmaltz (Max Planck Institute for the History of Science). The research team is comprised of highly qualified historians specializing in the history of science and contemporary and social history. The research programme will be supported by an international Scientific Advisory Board.

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