Adolf Harnack’s memorandum for a reform of German science

1909

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Original 1510749439
Photo: The theology professor Adolf v. Harnack, Archives of the Max Planck Society.
Photo: The theology professor Adolf v. Harnack, Archives of the Max Planck Society.

In 1909, Berlin theology professor Adolf Harnack issued an appeal to Kaiser Wilhelm II. As a close adviser to the Kaiser, a member of the Academy of Sciences and director of the renowned Royal Library, Harnack was one of the most innovative and influential science managers of his time. His memorandum outlined a comprehensive reform of the science system. It centred on Harnack’s call for Germany to establish independent research institutes to co-exist alongside the universities. He proposed that they should conduct specialized basic research, predominantly in the natural sciences, and explained that the rapid pace of industrialization since the mid-19th century had demonstrated that many new technical problems could only be solved with greater knowledge of chemical or physical principles. Advances were also being made in the fields of biology and medicine, he wrote. Harnack’s memorandum paved the way for structures that still characterize the German science system to this day and facilitated specialized research and Big Science as we know them today. In the interests of implementing these structures, Harnack proposed the foundation of a brand new type of research association for the advancement of science: The Kaiser Wilhelm Society.

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