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The Leopoldina: Germany’s National Academy of the Sciences

Nationale Akademie der Wissenschaften Leopoldina; Copyright: LeopoldinaLeopoldina National Academy of the Sciences; Copyright: LeopoldinaOn July 14, 2008 the "Leopoldina German Academy of Natural Scientists" (Deutsche Akademie der Naturforscher Leopoldina) in Halle has officially become the National Academy of the Sciences. Its designation marks the end of a decades old debate whose central question was who should represent German science abroad.

The "Leopoldina German Academy of Natural Scientists" in Halle has a long history. Founded in 1652, it is the oldest academy of the sciences in Europe. Among its 1,250 members in Germany and abroad are many Nobel Prize laureates. At present, the Leopoldina is also the biggest academy in Germany. The news that it will now, under the name of the National Academy of the Sciences, represent German science abroad struck not only its general secretary Jutta Schnitzer-Ungefug like a bolt from the blue. The decision of the Federal Minister for Research Annette Schavan at the end of 2007 took the whole world of German science by surprise.

"Finally it’s there!"

General meeting of the Leopoldina. Copyright: Leopoldina In Germany’s federal system of science nearly every state has its own Academy of Sciences, for instance, the Bavarian Academy of the Sciences or the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of the Sciences. Moreover, the research landscape has been shaped by traditional and self-confident funding and research institutions such as the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft / DFG), the German Academic Exchange Service (Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst / DAAD) and the Max Planck Society (Max-Plack-Gesellschaft). Financed mainly by the federal or state governments, these institutions each pursues its own goals independently from the others both at home and abroad. Nevertheless, in July 2007 a combination of the most important of these institutions submitted a joint proposal to the minister for research for the creation of a "German Academy of the Sciences" (Deutsche Akademie der Wissenschaften / DAW). But the idea failed to convince Schavan. By designating the Leopoldina to fulfil this function she ended the debate.

In the meantime the initial irritation at Schavan’s decision has given way to broad agreement. "The Union of German Academies of Sciences looks positively upon the establishment of a National Academy of the Sciences", says Professor Günter Stock, President of the "Union", the association of German Academies of Sciences, "and hopes that it will strengthen the voice of science in our country". The President of the powerful DFG is also relieved: "Finally it’s there!".

The official contact

Office of the DFG in China. Copyright: DFG Professor Schnitzer-Ungefug sees things similarly. "Everywhere else there are national academies of the sciences", says the general secretary. "It is important that Germany finally have an official contact for scientific questions". For Schnitzer-Ungefug, the designation of the Leopoldina only sets the seal on what is already existing practice. The Leopoldina, she observes, has long been the German contact abroad for scientific questions. The chief reason for this is that the Academy has an excellent international and national network: one fourth of its members live abroad and half are also members of other German scientific organisations.

In future it will be the Leopoldina’s official duty to speak for German science. The Leopoldina will also have to make its mark in bodies where other national academies are represented. One of these, for example, is the European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC), to which the academies of the 26 other EU countries belong. Its task is to take stands on questions of science and scientific policy.

Schnitzer-Ungefug is sanguine about future co-operation with other German scientific institutions which are also part of outstanding international networks: "There won’t be any infighting over competences. The goals of the various institutions are much too different". Thus, for instance, the Max Planck Society is known for its excellent research in association with institutes and scientists abroad. "We have other objectives. We discuss certain scientific questions and prepare statements on them".

Together under one roof

All the same, the days when each of Germany’s scientific organisations pursued its own goals are presumably over. In February 2008, the German federal government resolved upon a "Policy for the Internationalising of Science and Research" with the intention of "strengthening Germany’s role in the global knowledge society". The policy proposes co-ordinating more closely the activities of German research institutes abroad. Planned is the establishment of "German Knowledge Centres" abroad, where the DAAD and the Max Planck Society, for instance, would be represented under one roof. In this way, the policy paper expects "to improve the visibility and accessibility of German universities and research institutes" in the international competition for the best brains in research and science

Whether this strategy will bear fruit and be adopted by scientific organisations, however, remains to be seen.

Antonia Loick
The author works as a freelance science journalist, writer and director of the V8 Verlags in Cologne.

Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e.V., Online-Redaktion

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June 2008

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