The hallmarks of talent are intelligence, curiosity, creativity, the determination to investigate that which he or she considers exciting, and the ability to question the status quo.
Scientists are pioneers of globalization. For example, you did postdoctoral research at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio (United States). How did your experiences in such international environments shape you?
“Two things especially stand out when I think back to those years. First was the rich international character of my working group at the university led by Prof. Dr. Ernest B. Yeager, one of the leading electrochemists of the time. It was a melting pot of concepts, ideas, and visions that also significantly influenced my work. Moreover, many lasting friendships developed during this period. My second recollection is the high regard given to members of a Max Planck Society research group. In particular, the Fritz Haber Institute in Berlin, then directed by Prof. Dr. Heinz Gerischer, was the benchmark against which one was measured, even in the United States.”
“I studied chemistry in order to better understand the world in which we live. I was never particularly interested in the job description of an industrial chemist. However, I was always fascinated by how fundamental knowledge very often leads to innovative applications that change our lives. This is why I looked for an institute that intelligently combined basic research with practical application—and quickly landed a position with the Max Planck Institute for Iron Research, an institute of the Max Planck Society. At that time, the Max Planck Society received half of its funding from industrial corporations. While there, I was lucky, and perhaps privileged, to be able to choose my own research topic. I familiarized myself with a field that was completely new to me at that time—that of electrochemistry. In the process, I discovered, much to my surprise, that there was a fundamental process that was not really understood: namely, the rusting of iron when exposed to humid air and, in particular, the influence of wet–dry cycles on electrochemical reactions. This aroused my interest in corrosion research in general. Isn’t it fascinating how all of our metal materials are extremely unstable and nonetheless can be protected for centuries against decay by an oxide layer only a few atoms thick? Without such anti-corrosive layers, iron and aluminum-based metals, among others, would be unusable and our lives all the poorer!”
“Countries that want to be successful make a conscious investment in scientific competition. It is a form of economic competition. Let us use a sports analogy: We have a network of excellent sports facilities in Germany where young people can enjoy themselves as they please. Yet, if we want to win medals in international competitions, then we require centers of excellence in which only a few can fully develop their distinctive abilities. It is no different in science. There is mass education for the majority of students, which is offered at quite a high level. And then there are perhaps five percent who are especially scientifically talented, see their futures in research, and could truly make a contribution to science. Here, just as in high-performance sports, we have to offer these young people an environment where they are stimulated early on and can achieve their maximum potential. This is exactly the kind of environment that we offer at the Max Planck Society for talented, up-and-coming scientists.”
“How does one recognize talent? There is no simple answer to that question. My personal experience is that you recognize talent not based on statistical or bibliometric analyses, but rather when it is standing right in front of you. The hallmarks of talent are intelligence, curiosity, creativity, the determination to investigate that which he or she considers exciting, and the ability to question the status quo. Such talents are usually rare. Recognizing talent therefore depends on personal contact. Only in this way can one recognize passion and drive. Likewise, outstanding talent support must deliver on the promises of individuality, freedom, and scientific excellence. Above all, senior scientists must demonstrate their trust and confidence in young scientists. They have to offer the security that young scientists require in order to venture into uncharted territory. However, it is not enough to focus on performance. At the same time, it shouldn’t be forgotten that breakthroughs require time and that interim failures are totally normal.”
“The citizens of Germany have entrusted the Max Planck Society with an outstanding gift: scientific freedom. Along with other freedoms, it is anchored in the German constitution. This allows us to pursue our own research based on scientific criteria, as opposed to political or economic criteria, and be driven purely by the search for knowledge. The Max Planck Society is obliged to share this scientific freedom, first of all, with our directors, thereby ensuring that they are able to pursue and assume responsibility for long-term, scientific goals. The directors, in turn, are obliged to promote an atmosphere of openness, reliability, and scientific freedom in their institutes and departments. They thereby create surroundings that enable talented young people to achieve their potential. It is only in this way that we can attract and retain top talent.”
In my opinion, an approach such as the Global Talent Mentoring program offers the opportunity to bring young, talented women in contact with a role model and thereby encourage and strengthen their desire to pursue a path in science.
“In order to answer this question, one must first look at the scientific system in Germany. It fundamentally differs from the Anglo-Saxon system, which is mainly financed by the private sector. Every country pursues two goals in parallel: providing a broad section of its youth with the opportunity to study, while at the same time ensuring resources for very expensive top-level research. In the United States and Great Britain, this balancing act is resolved by having a broadly differentiated higher education landscape. There are numerous universities and colleges that are responsible for the education of the majority of students, complemented by a very few elite and excellently financed research universities. Germany has never gone down that path. All of its universities have to manage a very large number of students without having funds comparable to those international, elite universities at their disposal. Nevertheless, Germany, in addition to its universities, has a well-developed, non-university research landscape in which the Max Planck Society very successfully assumes this role of conducting top-level research. If you take into account both universities and non-university institutions together, then Germany can certainly keep pace with its international competitors. However, this is only when cooperation within the whole system is facilitated and encouraged. This is precisely what the Excellence Initiative has achieved. Over the past few years, 4.6 billion euros have been invested in cutting-edge research. The initiative has released an unimaginable dynamism within the system. The universities have developed strategic profiles and strengthened their research efforts in future-oriented fields. Scientists have been intensively collaborating beyond institutional boundaries in research clusters and graduate schools. Even though we have achieved a great deal after 15 years of the Excellence Initiative, the goal we have set for ourselves is not short term, but rather addresses a long-term concern. Resources are not inexhaustible. Therefore, it is not enough just to commit a certain level of funding to the system and divide it amongst those involved with the least possible conflict. Instead, we have to become more efficient and use what is available more wisely. This can only happen if we leave our entrenched ways of thinking behind us and concentrate on new approaches to solving existing problems. The Max Planck Schools, which are established across Germany, are an excellent example of this.”
In the fight against COVID-19, scientists from the Max Planck Society and other large non-university research institutions (the Fraunhofer Society, the Helmholtz Association of German Research Centres, and the Leibnitz Association) have pooled their findings and proposed potential response strategies. What has been your experience with this interdisciplinary “Operation COVID-19”?
“My experience has been exceptionally good. The cohesion between Max Planck, Fraunhofer, Helmholtz, and Leibniz is excellent. We have had regular exchanges and coordinated our analyses. A particularly relevant question for me was whether the analyses, which were conducted based on quite different approaches, were compatible. If they arrive at comparable results, does this confirm the validity of the findings? In addition, if the results deviate from one another, does this provide an indication of the range of errors? The answers to these questions have proven extremely important and have helped the German national government and the German federal states in making knowledge-based decisions.”
At the University of Regensburg, we are currently developing Global Talent Mentoring, a worldwide, online mentoring program scheduled to begin by the end of the year. It is aimed at exceptionally talented and motivated young people in science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medical sciences (STEMM) from all over the world. These young talents are mentored on a voluntary basis for a period of up to ten years by scientists and other STEMM experts from the public and private sectors who have particular expertise in the mentees’ respective STEMM disciplines. This is a form of promoting excellence that takes place on a platform specifically developed for this purpose and that completely relies on digital technologies. What is your evaluation of this kind of program?
“As we know from our experience in selecting candidates for positions, talented young people today are very well aware of their market value. You therefore have to offer them a truly excellent environment. If this is successful, then I genuinely see great opportunities in such a program, especially for young talent from countries where science has, up until now, played a secondary role.”
In one of your speeches, you challenged the scientific community to become younger and more female. Which strategies has the Max Planck Society pursued in order to reach this goal and what, in your opinion, could approaches such as Global Talent Mentoring contribute?
“Now that we have a large number of female doctoral and postdoctoral students, we have to ensure that these women can and will remain committed to a scientific career. In this respect, we face competition with the private sector, and we can only stay at the same level as them if we offer convincing employment alternatives. We need to offer a range of positions that are truly attractive for female scientists. One result of this strategic new approach is the Lise Meitner Excellence Program of the Max Planck Society. The program aims at female scientists who are already regarded as exceptional talents in their field of research at the start of their scientific careers. They should be actively supported at a very early career stage. From the very start, they are given a permanent position. This provides them with a great degree of security at a stage in their lives when career and family planning frequently coincide. At the same time, each of the Lise Meitner Groups provide a generous budget for materials and personnel comparable to that of other international institutions. After a funding period of a maximum of five years, Lise Meitner group leaders are offered the opportunity to apply for a Max Planck Society internal tenure-track position. If the candidate receives a positive evaluation by a tenure commission, she is offered a permanent position with group facilities at a Max Planck Institute. The clear objective is to increase the pool of female candidates who have the potential to become a director at a Max Planck Institute. In my opinion, an approach such as the Global Talent Mentoring program offers the opportunity to bring young, talented women in contact with a role model and thereby encourage and strengthen their desire to pursue a path in science.”