Mixed Signals

Somehow, I had a „déjà-vu“ after the release of the proceedings from the #factory wisskomm (see here). A couple of years ago, the German Academies of Science (yes, plural, I’ll come to that later) had published an expert’s report on science communication. Journalists were to play a major role in the communication. I wrote the main parts of the blog post below then. In the following years, some good initiatives followed, e.g. the founding of the German Science Media Center as an analogue to the British SMC. On the other hand, the decline of the traditional media continued – as newspapers and magazines kept losing readers and advertising revenue they had to cut costs and did so by laying off editorial staff, often specialists like science journalists. Different reasons, same effects: Public service broadcasters had to cut costs as well and trimmed down their reporting on science.

Signals from the #factory wisskomm are mixed. Strengthening of science journalism, for instance, which is – of course – a good idea. More communication from within science, which is – in principle – a good idea as well but has its shortfalls. Scientists are not trained in communication and have many many other tasks. Plus: There is still a multitude of voices from German science and not one co-ordinating voice with a leading opinion (except that it is good to communicate). In this re-posting, I update some thoughts on why there cannot be „the“ one voice of science in Germany, and what history has to do with this. In a nutshell: „mixed signals“ could be the overarching motto for science communication in Germany.


Ever heard of Helmholtz Association, Leibniz Association, Max Planck Society or the German Research Foundation? Ever wondered why the ones are called associations, others societies? And what about the two handful of academies in Germany? – Germany’s scientific system is quite complicated for those who are not familiar with German politics and history.  So here’s a brief and very personal description of the way science is organized in Germany and why this matters so much for science communication.

First, you need to know that Germany is a federal state, consisting of “Bundeslaender” (states). These, in turn, can in many cases be traced back to kingdoms and principalities. There were several unification processes in the 19th and 20th century resulting (1) in a German empire dominated by Prussia (Kaiser Wilhelm II will become important later on in this text), than (2) the Weimar Republic, after that (3) the “Deutsches Reich” under Nazi rule and, second to last, (4) two Germanies (German Democratic Republic, GDR, and Federal Republic of Germany, FRG) which (5) merged again in 1989: reunification or “Wiedervereinigung” in German.

Two things you should keep in mind whilst reading the following paragraphs: long-time Prussian domination (with the capital Berlin) since the 1870s and the peculiarities of the division into two Germanies after World War 2: In the western part, the first political entities to re-emerge were “Bundeslaender”. So, before the Federal Republic of Germany came into existence in 1949, it was the “Bundeslaender” that organized life on an administrative and political basis.

The beginnings of organized science

When you think of organized science you will have in mind universities. As an organizational structure they date back to the Middle Age. Interestingly, universities then were more like schools in the sense that they taught existing and established knowledge coming close to propaganda for the rulers and the Church. In the 17th century, scientific academies were formed throughout Europe, mainly financed by kings or governments. The Prussian Academy, for instance, was founded in 1700, and the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Science and Humanities sees itself as the direct successor of this learned society.

The modern type of university combining research, knowldge-seeking and teaching came into being in the early and mid 19th century, in Germany shaped to a great extent by Wilhelm von Humboldt. Teaching was still an important part, but research as well.

At the turn of the 19th and 20th century, a famous theologian, Adolf Harnack (later: Adolf von Harnack), thought of improving the scientific progress by introducing non-university institutes (extramural institutes) in a quite special manner. He advised Emperor Wilhelm II to fund institutes by appointing the best scientist of a given field as director, give him (at that time, scientists were nearly always men) substantial funds and than let this scientist basically do what he wanted to. This is called Harnack’s Principle (“Harnack-Prinzip”) in Germany: take a scientist, give her or him sufficient money and leave her/him alone to follow her/his goals. So, in 1910, the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gesellschaft (KWG, translated Emperor Wilhelm Society) was founded. Famous scientists worked there, amongst others Albert Einstein, Fritz Haber, and Max Planck, and Oskar and Cécile Vogt who founded the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute (KWI) for Brain Research that was relocated to Berlin-Buch around 1930. Many Nobel laureates came from KWIs and the KWG thrived. KWIs could afford the most modern machines and pursue expensive and/or long-term projects.

However, there were still the universities and their researchers who also needed money. In October 1920, the so-called Emergency Association of the German Research, “Notgemeinschaft der Deutschen Forschung”, was founded. This association saw itself as the representative body of all German scientists. The Emergency Association was to become the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft DFG). DFG is celebrating its centennial. The DFG funds individual scientists on a project level and not institutes (well, at least in principle, nowadays things get somehow indistinguishable*).

Just before the Nazi party came into power, Germany had the famed KWG, its old and highly renowned universities, and other extramural institutes as well, privately funded or run by foundations or ministries. We also had academies. Yes, plural. There was not one German Acadamy of Science but a whole lot of regional academies: Bavaria, Prussia, Saxony, and other states prided themselves with learned societies, the oldest one dating back to 1652. But these academies were not really for conducting cutting-edge science. (I am waiting for comments here.) They were more like old boys’ clubs. They were and still are important as learned societies and they still do interesting long-term projects (see here for examples in German) but let’s skip them for a while.

The War changes (not) everything

When the Nazi party came into power in 1933, many renowned scientists were driven out of office and forced to emigrate either because they were Jewish or against the regime. Quite a number of the remaining German scientists were helping the Nazis and some of them committed atrocities, especially in the field of biomedical research.

After the defeat in 1945, Germany was divided into four parts – yes, four, not two. One was under the rule of the Soviets and was to become the GDR. The other three parts were administered by France, Great Britain, and the United States. The allied forces installed regional governments for the “Bundeslaender”. These western “Laender” then formed the Federal Republic of Germany in 1949. But in the four years between surrender and the foundation of the FRG, schools had been in place, police, and universities were offering classes. This is one of the main reasons for the extremely strong role of the “Laender” in education. Universities as well as schools are solely funded and administered by the “Bundeslaender”.

After World War 2, the Kaiser Wilhelm Society had tried to continue. It is said that they sent the great physicist Otto Hahn to Albert Einstein trying to find out whether he could be convinced to become again a member of the famous scientific organization. Einstein declined brusquely. So they asked the long retired Max Planck, Nobel laureate and politically untainted, and he became the first president and eponym of the society formerly known as “Kaiser Wilhelm Gesellschaft”: the Max Planck Society was born. Many of the old scientists stayed in office, even if they had actively supported the Nazi government or committed horrible deeds such as studying brains from murdered children – all for the sake of research.

The Max Planck institutes and their scientists were mainly focused on basic research. To complement this, another society was founded in 1949 to conduct applied science with close relationships to the industry. It was named after Joseph von Fraunhofer (1787-1826), a Munich researcher, inventor and entrepreneur.

Nowadays, the Fraunhofer Society is Europe’s largest organization for application-oriented research.

Strategic, government-driven large-scale research enters the picture

In the 1950s, harnessing nuclear power was a very promising field of research and quite widely accepted by the society. Governments and scientists dreamed of nuclear-powered cars, trains, ships, and of mining with atomic bombs (the Soviets did the latter, and nuclear reactors in great warships are commonplace by now). And of course electricity could be produced, too. Nuclear research was a matter of utmost importance (and secrecy) for the governments, and it was expensive. Thus, the German research institutes conducting this kind of research were closely tied to the Federal, i.e. the central government, and not to the “Bundeslaender”. Interestingly, the large scale research facilities were all independent institutes or centers and formed a loose working group (“Arbeitsgemeinschaft”). This working group turned into an association and was later named after Hermann von Helmholtz, a medical doctor and physicist. Even though the Helmholtz Association underwent a significant centralizing process, each member institute of the Helmholtz Association is still independent so that the central administration of the Helmholtz Association has a weak role compared to that of the Max Planck Society. Today, the Helmholtz Association is Germany’s largest research organization comprising 18 large-scale centers and facilities with more than 30,000 employees.

There is yet another kind of government-driven research, the so called Federal Research Institutes, relevant to, e.g. health, regulations; public safety, and infrastructure. Read more here.

Between 1965 and 1973, many reforms were carried out in the university system and in the organization of science. In the aftermath of these reforms, the „Blue List“ was created in 1977. This list, printed on blue paper (hence the name), comprised 46 research institutes in the FRG. All they had in common was a new mode of funding equally divided between the “Bundesland” where the institute is located, and the federal government. This “Blue List Institutes” founded a working group, too. It was renamed several times and is now called the Leibniz Association.

Thus, two categories of extramural research emerged: two societies (Max Planck and Fraunhofer) with a strong central administration, and two associations (Leibniz and Helmholtz) with strong independent member institutes. For the book keepers: The Helmholtz  Association took its name in 1995, the Leibniz Association in 1997.

German reunification and its effects

In 1989 the wall came down and in 1990, the GDR parliament decided that the GDR should join the FRG. In October 1990, the reunification was celebrated. Subsequently, politicians planned to integrate the scientific systems. A large group of scientists went to the former GDR institutes to evaluate the research there. Basically, nearly all university professors of the GDR were sacked because to become a professor in the GDR one had to be in line with the ruling party SED. But there were quite successful institutes in the GDR organized in the Academy of Science of the GDR. This was not a learned society as in western countries, where members were appointed or elected, but rather a state-run holding for research institutes. If a GDR scientist wanted to be left alone politically she or he strived for a job in an academy institute. With the exemption of directors and union representatives, one could work there without being bothered by party meetings and speeches.

After the experts had evaluated the GDR institutes the question arouse: Where do we put them? Include them in universities? Difficult, as western tradition had it that a substantial part of the research, especially long-term research, is done in extramural institutes. Max Planck? Well, they said in Munich, we still adhere to the Harnack Principle; remember? We do not take institutes wholesale. We look for outstanding scientists. – Look, the other Munich-based organization, Fraunhofer, said, we are doing top-notch research for high-tech industries, and the institutes in the GDR are not quite up to this given that there was no real high-tech industry in the east. For Helmholtz, the size of most of the GDR institutes was too small. So politicians came up with the Blue List. What was this anyway? Dozens of institutes solely connected by the mode of financing. In the end the main chunk (more than 30) of all GDR research institutes ended up in the Leibniz Association.

So, we have four strong voices for extramural research institutes (Fraunhofer, Helmholtz, Leibniz, Max Planck), we have the German Research Foundation (DFG) as the self-governed body of university-affiliated scientists, we have a National Academy of Science (declared in 2008), and quite a number of additional players such as Foundations and the Federal Institutes (in the pandemic, the RKI and PEI became extremely well known).

A personal conclusion

Now if you ask for any representative voice for the German science, Max Planck will answer: What do you want? We got most of the Nobel prizes, we are THE brand, we are the “crème de la crème”. So it’s us. The DFG will say: What do you want? We are the representative body of all single scientists and truly self-governed by science. It’s us. Helmholtz does not answer loudly but flexes its muscles and whispers: What do you want? Here’s the money, here’s the government’s strategic research, we are the biggest. Fraunhofer does not answer either but says to itself: We earn more money from our research than all the other elitists combined. Then they turn away and continue inventing cool gadgets like MP3.

Whoa, steps in the National Academy of Science Leopoldina: What do want? We are the oldest academy in Germany, we were declared the National Academy! It’s us. — Wait a minute, say the Berlin Brandenburg Academy and “Acatech – National (sic!) Academy of Science and Engineering”: The Leopoldina was declared National Academy only together with us. Oh, say other academies and adversaries, the Prussians again. The Prussian experience is why the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy was not appointed National Academy. And what about universities as such? asks the German Rector’s Conference, the “Voice of the Universities”. – So, now you go and tell me who is the voice of Germany’s science?

Regionalism and sectionalism pose several problems. We do not have the one strong voice of science in Germany; there is no Chief Scientist. That weakens the position of science when it comes to political weight. It poses a problem for joint outreach efforts because each organization or governing body has its own goals, its own egos at the top and limited budget. It also limits the options when it comes to media relations. Each organization keeps more than one eye on the media: which president is mentioned, which one not? Why is institution X featured so prominently and not our center?

That’s the downside. But here’s the upside: I have worked with press officers and PR people of many of the institutions mentioned above, quite a number I would call professional friends. And oftentimes, we strived for the best solution for science. We searched for (and found) common ground. In a way, you might compare the situation with the European Union. No strong central government, a high degree of regionalism and the constant need for compromise and for finding a middle ground. It’s often criticized but it is a system that empowers smaller members and that offers stability. Conflicts are mellowed. That may be perceived as dull but if I compare the situation in Germany with other countries, science is highly esteemed and still well funded. And that is quite a success.


* What do I mean by indistinguishable? The DFG funds individual scientists and collaborative research centers, the “Sonderforschungsbereiche”. They often comprise dozens of scientists and can last up to twelve years. The DFG also founded centers of excellence such as the MATHEON in Berlin. One could see this as coming closer and closer to founding and funding institutes. On the other hand, extramural organizations and centers dole out grants and fund collaborative research projects.

Here’s some more materials. The slide „Forschungslandschaft“ was provided by M. Hennecke from the Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing:

Forschungslandschaft in D eng


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