"Politics should stay out of research as much as possible"
Stephan Albani and Holger Becker are physicists, members of the Bundestag and new members of the Helmholtz Senate. A conversation about research policy, the strengths of the Helmholtz Association, and what it all has to do with Saturday night programming on German television.
You belong to different parties and both sit on the Science Committee of the Bundestag. When you discuss things there: Are you primarily a party politician or a physicist?
Albani: Politics is not a profession for me; politics is a temporary mandate. I look at the issues at stake, and the scientist in me then advises the politician in me, which is a wise way to deal with the topic at hand.
Becker: I don't think you can make such a sharp distinction. Politics is always about interpreting and classifying data, and of course everyone has their own personal perspective on that.
Albani: In the last two legislative periods, I worked very well with a colleague from your party who was a microbiologist. We mostly talked and negotiated among natural scientists, and that made things a lot easier (laughs).
Why did you actually decide to study physics?
Becker: One of the first events I remember was the moon landing. After that, as a child, I devoured everything to do with airplanes and rockets, and a very good physics teacher had a tremendous motivating effect. When I was 13, I decided that I wanted to be a physicist. I had no idea what that was exactly, but I knew that physicists could explain the world.
Albani: I'm the son of a doctor, and sometimes I could join my father in the lab. I would watch the gas chromatographs and other equipment beeping and being analyzed, and at some point, when I was eight or ten years old, I was allowed to do something with it myself. And another thing was that I always loved reading Sherlock Holmes, and how he was able to draw many conclusions from little information and thus solve mysteries. I found that fascinating. Explaining the seemingly inexplicable is precisely the essence of science.
Becker: That's a good phrase: Many years later, when I was traveling in Australia and met gold prospectors at a campsite, I explained around the campfire in the evening what they were actually looking for; that the gold was the remains of exploded stars. The prospectors hadn't thought about it yet, but they listened spellbound.
Albani: To boldly go where no man has gone before. That's from Star Trek, and I think it's a great motto for science.
How do science and politics fit together?
Albani: I've only been in politics for ten years, and just as I fought for evidence-based medicine in the time before that, I'm now fighting for evidence-based policy. And I see that while some of the parliamentarians unfortunately drift more towards dogma and ideology again, another, quite significant number of politicians have accepted science as a basis for politics. There is much more demand for figures, data and facts.
Becker: I absolutely agree with you there: We will increasingly find ourselves in situations that we haven't had before, and that's where politicians will be required to make faster, more momentous decisions, from the small community to the highest levels, from issues such as energy, water supply and climate to the security architecture in a multipolar world. The willingness to communicate with scientists has increased, without question, but I still see a deficit in the substantive, deeper engagement with these issues.
Albani: I keep organizing parliamentary evenings with the Physical Society to make science more accessible to my fellow politicians. And I have noticed that the openness to facts and the willingness to base political work on scientific findings has increased significantly in recent years.
The way in which politics is shaped is one thing, and the content of the policy is another. Let's take a look at this content: What do you think are the open questions in research policy?
Becker: The way we select and fund research topics basically dates back to the days of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society, and just as products reach the end of their life cycle at some point, this research funding is now also at the end in organizational terms. Everyone, really everyone, in this science business complains about excessive bureaucratization, and over the past few years we have also seen that the probability of funding in many programs has declined as a result. In individual project calls in programs like Horizon2020, the final success rate for applications was only three percent. That means that 97 percent of the effort and work of applicants, but also of reviewers and program organizers, is simply being thrown away. I think we need disruptive changes there: We need to sit down and think about how funding processes can be de-bureaucratized in the 21st century.
Albani: That may be so. But before that sounds too negative, we must also not lose sight of the great progress that has been made in the German research landscape. When I was still a student, there was talk in Germany of a major brain drain. Anyone who wanted to become something in physics had to go abroad, or so they used to say. And today? The opposite is the case, we are experiencing an incredible brain gain, and if no Nobel Prize goes to Germany in a year, it almost leads to depression. This shows that the general conditions have improved tremendously.
Where do you see tasks for policymakers?
Albani: My answer is, above all, that politics should stay out of research as much as possible. I think politics has intervened too much in recent years. The great strength of our German research landscape is its diversity, and we should urgently preserve that. Politics shouldn't be allowed to control science.
Becker: This is indeed a very delicate area of tension, and I think that we have chosen a good approach by switching to a stronger mission orientation, which can also be seen at the European level. Put simply, politics formulates societal goals, and science is given as much freedom as possible to find solutions.
Through your role in the Helmholtz Senate, you now have direct insights into the research community. How does the Helmholtz Association stand from your point of view?
Albani: As a very large tanker, the Helmholtz Association has a tremendous strength: There's a tremendous amount of power behind it, and scientists are active in every field . But this also results in a weakness: There is a complex structure behind it that does not make coordination easy.
Becker: The Helmholtz Association does not have the same visibility in the public eye as, say, the Max Planck Society or the Fraunhofer Society. Of course, something like the Polarstern expedition can be sold wonderfully...
Albani: ...but then they always say: That was the Alfred Wegener Institute. The fact that it belongs to the Helmholtz Association is easily missed.
Becker: That's why I think making it visible is a major task for the Helmholtz Association. A number of overlapping areas for interdisciplinary research have been identified by the Helmholtz Association, because a large part of modern science takes place precisely at these interfaces. If we can continue to identify the right topics and create a common spirit, then there is a tremendous opportunity here, which the Helmholtz Association in particular, with its many major research centers, can exploit wonderfully.
Let's be specific: The news is still quite recent that there is a 50 percent probability that global warming will exceed the 1.5 degree target as early as 2026...
Becker: ...and this is precisely where it makes sense to draw on the expertise of the Helmholtz Association, which has the Earth and Environment as one of its key Research Fields. It will be interesting to see what contributions the various centers make, each with their own expertise; be it DLR with its Earth observation capabilities or Research Center Jülich with its quantum computing. And in politics, by the way, there is no disagreement that these are the dominant issues that will affect humanity globally and in frighteningly short periods of time.
Albani: I recently spoke at the Helmholtz Association with many people who are working on the climate crisis. It became clear to me once again: The Helmholtz Association is very well positioned, as we say in the north. With its combination of different approaches, it is able to think in terms of entire systems and not just in terms of individual parts.
Climate change has already been researched incredibly well. Isn't the ball now in the politicians' court?
Becker: Of course it's up to the politicians! The key words are, for example, climate neutrality and technological sovereignty, two fields, by the way, in which research once again has an outstanding role to play. We need good technical solutions that we can then support and implement in politics.
Albani: Good technical solutions; I think that's a good phrase. Do you know what I always hear as the first sentence in my public consultations?
No, tell us!
Albani: Almost every conversation begins with the sentence: "If you in politics don't finally understand that–and then comes the concern–then the world will end." That's how conversations start on quite a few completely different topics. I think there's an eerie and comprehensive fear of the future speaking from it.
The situation really doesn't look all that rosy at the moment, does it?
Albani: I certainly don't want to minimize the problems. But pandemics, for example, did exist in earlier times, and mankind was much more vulnerable to them than it is today. Today, more than ever, we have the means to meet these challenges in innovative ways.
Becker: The problems of the present are indeed so complex that they drive some people to psychological misanthropy. It would be immensely helpful if science were to take on an even stronger explanatory function.
Now you both suddenly sound like natural scientists again, and you agree again....
Albani: And now I come back to the good technical solutions. Just take a look at what's on TV on Saturday evenings. When I was young, there were science fiction programs about exciting discoveries beyond the known horizons. Today, on the other hand, the world is ending in every movie, and the only question is what we'll end up with this time. I think we should regain the old desire for discovery. We are in a position to shape the future in a positive way thanks to our inventiveness in science.
Becker: And that's a wonderful task for research, isn't it?
Stephan Albani is a member of the CDU and has been a member of the Bundestag since 2013. After studying physics in Göttingen, he founded two institutes: Hörzentrum Oldenburg and HörTech, at and with the University of Oldenburg as managing partner. HörTech received the German Future Prize in 2012. Most recently, the founding of a medical care center in 2008. Albani has since placed all of the companies in the hands of successors. In the Bundestag, he is the chairman of the Committee for Education, Research and Technology Assessment. His electoral district of Oldenburg/Ammerland is in northwestern Lower Saxony.
Holger Becker is a member of the SPD and has been a member of the Bundestag since 2021. After studying physics and earning his doctorate in Heidelberg, he worked for several companies before founding his own company in 2002. In 2004, he was nominated for the German Founders Award. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry and a bearer of the Badge of Honor of the German Physical Society. His constituency is Jena, Weimarer Land and the Sömmerda district.