A different kind of excellence

How does the Von Harnack principle hold up 100 years later?

Interview | door Sicco de Knecht
26 juli 2018 | “If you would depend on external grants to further your research drastically switching your research topic would never be possible.” To Max Planck director Arturo Zychlinsky the essential underpinnings of what started as the Kaiser Wilhelm Institutes haven't lost a shred of relevance in a hundred years. However, in spite of their independence the Society is constantly having to adapt to changing circumstances in the scientific world.
Arturo Zychlinsky – Image: ScienceGuide

Every Max Planck director knows the story of how the institute came about, and when asked they’ll probably gladly tell you if they haven’t already. It is the story of a visionary protestant theology professor who believed it was about time for Germany to focus on specialized basic research into the natural sciences, and a Kaiser who believed strongly in powerful individuals – as he saw himself.

Besides being a theologian Adolf van Harnack was a renowned scientific manager and a close advisor of Germany’s most prominent citizen: Kaiser Wilhelm II. In his vision it was essential that the country would have research institutes that operated independently from universities, as they did in the United States of America. The fact that he suggested these should be named after the most important person in the realm, Wilhelm, surely helped things move along.

The notion that success is a personality driven factor always has been a crucial aspect of what naturally became known as the Kaiser Wilhelm Society. Under the presidency of Von Harnack the society raised its first institutes in 1911 under directorship of two of the most prominent scientists at the time. Ernst Beckmann would lead the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Chemistry and Fritz Haber that of Physical Chemistry and Electrochemistry. In his mind the establishment of a new institute would only be successful if it was led by a successful and renowned individual: that was the Harnack Principle.

In 1948 a new Society was raised and it adopted almost all of the former Kaiser Wilhelm institutes. Its first president, Max Planck, was keen to adapt its individual driven underpinnings but chose to rename the institutes in a more descriptive fashion. Except for one. At the suggestion of then director Max von Laue the first institute of the Society would be named after its first director: the Frits Haber Institute of the Max Planck society.

True autonomy for directors

“I think the Harnack principle is still a strength that is reflected in the many ground breaking discoveries that originated at Max Planck Institutes, and the renowned scientists it has brought forward,” says Arturo Zychlinsky. He has been at the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Berlin since 2001 and is currently its managing director.

We meet in his office which is adorned by art works on one side, and a full wall of notes written in white board marker on the other. Central to the room is a stylish curved two-seater couch with a fine red print. At the window stands a classical wooden desk with an interesting outlook on history: at other side of the street lies the former building of Berlin’s most famous hospital: the Charité.

““If you would depend on external grants to further your research drastically switching your research topic would never be possible.””

As of today the Society stands at a total of almost 90 institutes of which most are located in Germany. Structural reforms in the 80’s created the idea of shared directorates of institutes, of which most have five or more nowadays. The institute directors still possess an extraordinary autonomy on what to investigate within their group and how. This autonomy is not only reflected in the generous budgets that directors receive and the well-maintained infrastructure. Directors are truly free to determine their course of their research.

Responding to the question whether completely switching research subject actually ever happens Zychlinsky is quick to reply. “Yes, it surely does happen. This is one of the great things of Max Planck.” As an example he mentions Nobel Prize winner Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard who discovered the key genes for development. “One day she decided to move away from fruit flies as a study subject, and moved to fish. That would be very difficult in any other institute.”

“If you would depend on external grants to further your research this would never be possible.” According to Zychlinsky funders are generally risk averse and extremely conservative. “If you apply for a grant stating your expertise and indicating that you want to switch fields you don’t get funding. Like that you can never have a ten-year perspective on your research.”

A different kind of excellence

The overall yearly budget of €1.8 billion, equivalent to the entire ERC budget, provides the Max Planck researchers with a reliable core budget. However, that doesn’t mean that individual researchers do not apply for external funding. “In a good balance you can use the Max Planck funding for more innovative, the more crazy research, and other funding for more straightforward research.”

Taken together the total external budget applied for was a modest €220 million in 2017. Max Planck researchers don’t generally apply for external grants. During the first round of the ERC not a single director applied for a research grant.

For many of the younger researchers at Max Planck this relative comfort is both a blessing and a curse. The outward mobility of post docs can be seriously hampered by the fact that they haven’t yet received many research grants, a key determinant for your chances at a new grant application. Zychlinsky laments the discrepancies between the demands young scientists are faced with such as a high publication record, and the harsh reality of modern day science. “Having an article in review for a year is normal now, which I think is outrageous.”

But still, having worked at a Max Planck Institute does wonders for your career by itself. “Of the young researchers that have been through my lab, the ones that wanted to continue in science have all landed positions. One of the former post docs who was in my lab for six years even went on to work on a terrific project at a university without any publication. Ideas still matter.”

““The absurd bureaucracy of funding has gotten out of control.””

To Zychlinsky the general push for excellence amongst scientific is not to be equated with the Max Planck philosophy. “Part of the difficulty of investing in science is that you never know where the original studies are going to come from.” Investing in science by funding what one might call ‘excellence’ has an effect on the behaviour of scientists. “They will adapt different strategies which aren’t always beneficial to the advancement of the field”

“All fields go through peaks of major discovery but you also need people to figure out the details of said discovery to advance to a new level.” In acknowledgement that it is probably impossible to set a fixed balance between ‘splashy’ discoveries and the more tedious work of cataloguing and replication it is clear to him that it is becoming harder and harder to justify taking the time to fully delve into the finer details behind each new discovery.

“The absurd bureaucracy of funding has gotten out of control. Applicants who speak the right language will get funded, and this is the language of new major breakthroughs.” According to him science is a cumulative process and depends highly on thorough assessment for which many researchers lack the time and funding. “In order to make a new discovery you need to also do the ‘monkish work’. I’m not saying the Max Planck researchers all do this, but at least you can decide to do so if you deem it is necessary.”

The courtship for a directorate

As a rule a research group and its director both have the same lifespan. Be it through natural or contractual cause, its existence ends with the director. This embodiment of the Harnack principle is not without consequences. For one, becoming a Max Planck director is notoriously difficult and involves a complicated procedure akin to a mating ritual.

In short a committee consisting of directors of the Max Planck subdivision and external professors invites candidates to a symposium at which they need to show their personal excellence. The result of this symposium can, but doesn’t have to, be a nomination to the corresponding Max Planck section (there are three). The appointment is put up to a vote to all directors of that section and when the result is positive the final decision is left to the Max Planck Senate of which 15 out of 32 are external members.

“Once there is trust, this lasts for twenty years or more.” According to Zychlinsky no system is perfect, but the overall approach of Max Planck approximates it quite well. “There is an extreme competition to become a director but rarely any competition within an institute. It is a shared task to lead it well and there are external evaluations for each director.”

The fact that the Max Planck Institutes commonly dissociate the administrative from the scientific directorship is a blessing according to Zychlinsky. The fact that at most universities professors are asked to do both is what he typifies as the absurdity of modern science. “It is this strange idea that we select a great musician to be the conductor of an orchestra and at the same time expect this person to be able to manage a group of a hundred people.”

Wanted: Max Planck directors

Judging by its demography the Max Planck Society is growing old. Quite a number of directors are rapidly approaching their pensionable age. And although the Max Plack Society still adheres to their rule of terminating a research group when its director leaves, many directorial positions will become available in the near future. In February 2018 the Society broke with an age old tradition by issuing a worldwide call for directors, which they published in major science journals.

The problem is that there aren’t enough researchers interested in the positions. Some attribute this to exactly those core values that made the success of the Max Planck: the wonderful isolation from other institutes and the focus on the individual. In addition, the Max Planck Society is finding it incredibly difficult to recruit female scientists to the position of director.

Zychlinsky sees the latter as an urgent problem, without an easy solution. His section has vowed to bring the percentage of female directors up from roughly 15% today to 20% in 2020 but is at risk of falling short. “The problem is that you don’t want to compromise on the excellence of the candidates.” The fact that the gender gap in science starts right after the PhD and increases with age means that there are less candidates to choose from. “Right now the women who are in the position of becoming a director are getting offers from everywhere. Which means that recruiting them becomes very difficult.”

““Right now the women who are in the position of becoming a director are getting offers from everywhere.””

The fact that scientists tend to marry scientists causes another problem he says. “Also studies have shown that female scientists are more likely to marry male scientists than vice versa, which creates a disparity.” For this reason Zychlinsky thinks that a dual career perspective is crucial. “This means that for female directors we as a Max Planck Society should strategically go out to find a suitable position for their partners.”

“The geographical distribution of our institutes creates another problem.” After Germany’s reunification a number of new Max Planck institutes was founded in the former DDR. “In Munich or Berlin finding one’s partner a suitable position is relatively easy, but if you’re in a small town far away from other institutes planning a dual career is much more challenging.”

Moving away from the cult of personality?

Step by step the Max Planck Society is forced to step out of its relative isolation and one of the reasons is the changing nature of science. “More and more our questions and experiments force us to collaborate and share our ideas and data. This is work we have to do in a team.” However, that doesn’t mean that the Von Harnack principle is outdated Zychlinsky says. “Even if we consider the recent discoveries in physics and astronomy, where giant groups of scientists work together, I can’t believe that there isn’t someone who is the driving force behind that.”

Still this doesn’t mean that the cult of personality is a good thing. As a final remark he mentions what he considers to be one of the most antiquated ideas in science: scientific prizes. To him they represent the very antithesis to the open and collaborative approach that science needs. “Scientific prizes, even the Nobel prize, are super corrupt. It’s just a group of ten old Swedish men who have way too much influence.” The fact these prizes have become so important for promotions and in how science promotes itself to the general public, worries him.

“As scientists we gave them this power, the Max Planck Society would love to have more Nobel prize winners. Why? Because it means freedom from the politicians because they think it means something.” To Zychlinsky it clearly doesn’t and he’d sooner be rid of them. “The future of science is data driven, not people driven.”

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