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"Thought Needs Freedom": An Interview with the President of the Max Planck Society

Interview: Andreas Sentker and Martin Spiewak

As President of the Max Planck Society, Peter Gruss searches out the world's finest minds.

Thought needs freedomProf. Dr. Peter Gruss, President of the Max Planck Society
DIE ZEIT: Mr Gruss, is science valued again in this country?

PETER GRUSS: Yes, definitely. Education and research are very high priorities for the current government. We still have a number of ideological barriers to overcome in public perception however, for example regarding green genetic engineering.

ZEIT: That doesn't seem to stop researchers from abroad coming to Germany.

PETER GRUSS: We have indeed succeeded in appointing a gratifyingly large number of foreign scientists to our directorial positions. More than 25 percent of our directors have foreign passports. Just recently we brought two scientists from the USA to Frankfurt.

ZEIT: People are always saying that Germany can't keep up on the global market for cutting-edge research because we don't pay well enough.

PETER GRUSS: Germany is indeed not competitive when it comes to salaries, as they are lower here than the average in Switzerland, in Great Britain or in the USA. Moreover, we at Max Planck aren't competing with the average, but with the Harvards, the Cambridges and ETH Zurichs of this world. Thanks to the Endowment Foundation of the Max Planck Society we are in a position to make it more attractive for our preferred candidates to join us. We offer a highly creative scientific environment and are known around the world for our planning reliability. This means that, in contrast to sometimes in the USA, we provide a scope for intellectually risky research projects.

ZEIT: How can the salary problem be solved?

PETER GRUSS: It's difficult, because even if we had the money, what is known as pay banding for professorial salaries prevents us from paying more. We had hoped that a "Law on Academic Freedom" would do away with this banding entirely. That hasn't happened. But at least we now have regulations that somewhat loosen the budget restraints.

ZEIT: And that's enough?

PETER GRUSS: No, I'm afraid not. In other countries, allowances are added to personal salaries, for example for private or university tuition for the children or for the family home. German salary law makes no provision for allowances of this kind. But why should an American whom we would like to sign up as a director accept an offer that doesn't include tuition for his children? Therefore, even if pay banding is removed, we will remain dependent on sponsors.

ZEIT: Max Planck researchers also have the advantage that they don't have to train students like their colleagues in Harvard or Stanford.

PETER GRUSS: We train approximately 4000 doctoral candidates, more than 50 percent of them from abroad, which makes us one of the largest doctorate hotbeds in Germany, even if we ourselves do not have the right to award doctoral degrees.

ZEIT: Only universities have that right in Germany. Critics consider this fragmentation of competencies and functions to be a weakness of the German academic system, because too many research organisations exist in parallel. This is referred to as pillarisation in the jargon.

PETER GRUSS: As far as the Max Planck Society is concerned, pillarisation has always been a myth. We have already collaborated intensively with universities in the past. The Initiative for Excellence has given this co-operation a boost: 70 percent of the award-winning Excellence Clusters have a Max Planck Institute on board.
ZEIT: But tensions keep arising between the universities and the Max Planck Institutes, for example in competition for the best young scientists.

PETER GRUSS: I can't deny that. Previously there was indeed a tendency to isolate ourselves somewhat from each other. Some universities were worried that we would take away their doctoral candidates. But those are exceptions, and in addition their fears are entirely unfounded: the increase from formerly 2000 to the previously mentioned 4000 doctoral candidates is fuelled entirely from abroad.

ZEIT: Then what is causing the tension?

PETER GRUSS: I for example transferred from the University of Heidelberg to the Göttingen Max-Planck Institute and brought with me a successfully introduced student internship. When a Göttingen student wanted his achievements there recognised by the university, his professor refused: "An internship at Max Planck? You might as well have joined the post office."

ZEIT: And these tensions have been removed?

PETER GRUSS: Yes, not least because of the competition of excellence. We need strong networks if we are to be able to compete worldwide.

ZEIT: Will Max Planck change in order to hold its own in this competition?

PETER GRUSS: We are so successful because we are the way we are. The best American private universities function in much the same way as we do - they recruit their personnel mainly via the quality of their research. And the two hours of teaching per semester required of professors at Harvard or Stanford, our directors manage those too.

ZEIT: Then Max Planck Institutes could become part of the universities.

PETER GRUSS: No, that's just it. Our advantage is that we work independently of a curriculum or a fixed training program. The mission of universities is a different one. They have firm teaching commitments. So we secure the flexibility of the German academic system and at the same time provide stimuli for developments at the universities - such as recently with the foundation of our Institute for Age Research in Cologne, where we are closely collaborating with the university.

ZEIT: The Max Planck Society providing development aid for universities. Wouldn't higher education institutions be better served if they were as well equipped as the Max Planck Institutes?

PETER GRUSS: That is the responsibility of the federal states. Germany invests on average 9000 dollars per student per year. The USA spend 25,000 dollars. If the federal states intend to take their cultural and educational autonomy seriously, they will have to equip their universities far better - at least the best of them.

ZEIT: How many elite universities could there be in Germany?

PETER GRUSS: Three or four at most.
ZEIT: But the Max Planck Institutes, which are half financed by the federal government, aren't exactly rolling in money either.

PETER GRUSS: Our personnel and energy costs alone eat up the currently agreed 3 percent budget increase. So at the moment we don't even have the chance to found new institutes. We need more money on top of those 3 percent in order to successfully continue developing. Specifically: for a new institute we need two percent budget growth. And Max Planck isn't even particularly expensive. We are still 800 million euros cheaper than Stanford University - and have at least as high a scientific output.

ZEIT: If you are against merging in the long term - in what direction should the German academic system develop?

PETER GRUSS: We are currently seeing attempts in many places to create new structures through local collaborations - as shown by, for example, the Max Planck Graduate Centre in Mainz. Or look at Karlsruhe, Munich, Göttingen or - watchword "Superuni" - Berlin. Right across the country we have attempts to identify and enhance the strengths of the universities. And we are more than happy to intensively cooperate here. Under one condition: that we do not lose our flexibility.

ZEIT: But the universities aren't really that inflexible any more.

PETER GRUSS: Indeed, higher education institutions are gaining greater freedom, and this freedom is urgently needed. But that doesn't speak for a fusion. Today, creative research often takes place in small, concentrated units whose activities are nonetheless worldwide - such as in our institutes.

ZEIT: In Florida, Max Planck has just founded its first institute that is fully financed from abroad. Is this the future?

PETER GRUSS: First of all it shows the level of international recognition we enjoy worldwide: Florida's tax payers are financing a Max Planck Institute. But Germany needn't fear that Max Planck is quietly emigrating. We are and will remain a German research institution. Activities abroad additionally strengthen the Max Planck Society.
ZEIT: Is Florida just an experiment then?

PETER GRUSS: No, the institute in Florida won't remain the only one. We are in very advanced talks with Luxembourg about a Max Planck Institute of Law near the International Court of Justice. We also have a number of further offers, both in other European countries and worldwide.

ZEIT: How many Max Planck Institutes abroad will there ultimately be?

PETER GRUSS: I could imagine a handful. We have to be wherever there is scientific movement and where the best researchers are. We can't entice them all to come to Germany, so we will have to go to them. This will also benefit science in Germany.

DIE ZEIT :: 25.09.2008