Interview with Prof. Dr. Martin Stratmann, president of the Max Planck Society

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.
The Max Planck Soci­ety for the Advance­ment of Sci­ence e.V. in Ger­many is home to some of the world’s top researchers. Among the ten insti­tu­tions world­wide with the great­est num­ber of Nobel Prize win­ners, two are sit­u­at­ed in Europe—the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cam­bridge and the Max Planck Soci­ety. As Germany’s lead­ing non-uni­ver­si­ty research insti­tu­tion, the Max Planck Soci­ety cur­rent­ly com­pris­es 86 Max Planck Insti­tutes and facil­i­ties that each con­duct basic research in the nat­ur­al, bio­log­i­cal, human, and social sci­ences for the ben­e­fit of the gen­er­al pub­lic. Since 2014, Prof. Dr. Mar­tin Strat­mann has been head of the Max Planck Soci­ety. The mul­ti­ple award-win­ning chemist is a renowned expert in the field of cor­ro­sion process research. In an inter­view with Glob­al Tal­ent Men­tor­ing, Prof. Dr. Strat­mann explains how to rec­og­nize tal­ent and why the pro­mo­tion of excel­lence is so important.

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.”

You stud­ied chem­istry and con­cen­trat­ed on research in cor­ro­sion process­es. Your work opened up new paths for indus­tri­al man­u­fac­tur­ers to pre­vent steel from rust­ing. How did you become inter­est­ed in this field?
“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!”
The Max Planck Soci­ety is like a light­house that helps attract out­stand­ing minds from all over the world. Why is the pro­mo­tion of excel­lence so important?
“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.”
You recruit your young sci­en­tists from a much larg­er pool than 30 or 50 years ago. How do you rec­og­nize tal­ent? More­over, how can you pro­vide opti­mal support?
“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.”
Nobel Prize win­ner and Max Planck Insti­tute researcher Prof. Dr. Klaus von Klitz­ing has expressed sup­port for the ini­tia­tives of Glob­al Tal­ent Men­tor­ing. He often stress­es how impor­tant it is for researchers to be giv­en “room for cre­ativ­i­ty.” What can the Max Planck Soci­ety do to cre­ate an envi­ron­ment for excep­tion­al­ly tal­ent­ed stu­dents and prospec­tive sci­en­tists in which they can devel­op their abil­i­ties to the fullest?
“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.
One of the goals of the Excel­lence Ini­tia­tive of the Ger­man nation­al gov­ern­ment and the Ger­man fed­er­al state gov­ern­ments is to ele­vate cut­ting-edge research in Ger­many from a nation­al lev­el to a top-tier, inter­na­tion­al lev­el. Do you think this has succeeded?
“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.”

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