Interview & Opinion

Optimism as a Duty

Source: FWF/APA/Vogl

FWF: Professor Mittelstraß, how satisfied were you with the event “Exzellenz in der Wissenschaft”? How would you assess it?

Jürgen Mittelstraß: If you are looking for an assessment of our event, the organiser is not really the right person to ask; you should leave that to the participants. I do think, however, that the topic was timely, that we had excellent, insightful contributions, a good panel and, above all, clearly more time for discussion than at other events, and the discussions were very rich. In the context of the government negotiations it was, I guess, exactly the right kind of event.

FWF: A positive verdict?

Mittelstraß: Yes, a positive verdict.

FWF: You have been in the science-policy advisory business for quite some time, if you don’t mind this offhand expression. During all this time, have there been moments when you met with such stiff resistance to advice that you seriously thought about giving up the science-policy advisory function?

Mittelstraß: Oh yes, there were such moments. People who act as advisers quite often do so unsuccessfully. It is simply an integral part of the advisory business, although it is sometimes hard to accept. Particularly when it is about science. You try to give science a voice, and this voice is not heard. I am not the only one to have had this experience. It is an experience everyone who takes on the task of advocating and representing science in the political sphere undergoes.

One must not overlook, however, that many disappointments are due to the fact that people expect immediate success. It has frequently turned out that success may come much later. I, too, have often seen recommendations end up in a drawer at first, just to be taken out again at a later point and have an impact then. As an adviser on science policy you need stamina.

FWF: Patience is a virtue…

Mittelstraß: Patience is a virtue (smiles) in all areas of life.

FWF: A virtue that may be occasionally overtaxed?

Mittelstraß: Yes. People who often advise unsuccessfully tend not to take their job seriously any more. That would mean being patient in a way that is not conducive to your goal. You become soft, you understand everything, including why you are unsuccessful, and eventually you turn into a very comfy partner. That’s not how it should be. Instead, you should preserve a quality usually associated with youth, namely a good measure of dissatisfaction, and maintain your impatience and persistence.

FWF: Do you see the (growing) resistance to expert advice on the part of politicians as a development in itself, as the result of the political elite’s declining ‘connectivity’?

Mittelstraß: No, I don’t think one can speak about a growing resistance in this context. Fortunately, you sometimes learn that advice is indeed heard, that recommendations drawn up by scientists are understood by politicians. It’s like living on an emotional roller-coaster. Now everything seems to go well, the next

It is what we currently see in Austria, where policy-makers toy with the idea of placing science and the responsibility for science anywhere.

Jürgen Mittelstraß

moment everything seems to fail. I don’t think that there is a trend towards increasing frequency of failure. Drawing from my own experience, time and again there are moments when you suddenly see science policy-makers taking your side. Politicians change, and occasionally you do meet some who are actually interested in science and know a great deal about it. This said, there are the others, who don’t attribute great value to science and being advised by scientists. It is what we currently see in Austria, where policy-makers toy with the idea of placing science and the responsibility for science anywhere, for instance together with economic affairs. This demonstrates tremendous misconceptions and leads to a marginalisation of science and research, something a modern society simply cannot afford.

FWF: Science as a luxury…

Mittelstraß: Yes, and then there is something else: if we have to have science and research at all, let’s have it in profitable application-oriented fields, if you please. People will then say: why do we need this thing that is called basic research? It will be conducted by others and, if we need it, we will simply buy it from them. What people overlook in this context is the fact that real originality and seminal innovation will come only from basic research.

FWF: Indicative of a disregard of intellectual endeavours here in Austria?

Source: FWF/APA/Vogl
Mittelstraß: Perhaps. Not a pleasant thought at any rate. It would mean that scientific discourse takes place somewhere else, which would be very unfortunate. Austria should be a place of science, and it is one. But we also need science policy-makers to see it as such. Excellence attracts excellence. And this is what makes science so attractive for a country in intellectual and also economic terms. A failure to promote science, on the other hand, would mean sending the wrong signal. It would mean living in a country which knows that its development depends on science and research, but does not draw the concomitant conclusion that it has to do something for this to happen.

FWF: If one assumes that policies only reflect the assessments and attitudes inherent in a society, what would science have to do so as to make this unsatisfactory state of affairs – from the point of view of science – change for the better?

Mittelstraß: The science community has gone up the learning curve, too. It has learned that it needs to make society understand what it does. This is why what we do is more than mere political advisory work, by the way. It is also societal advisory work, which needs to be presented in a comprehensible way. Science should simply know the ropes when it comes to being comprehensible and highlighting its role in social development. This is about enlightening society, in the best sense of the term, not only about enlightening politicians.

FWF: So you are convinced this is an exercise that needs to be conducted in a spirit of enlightenment.

Mittelstraß: That’s right. With the proviso, however, that science can’t answer all questions and solve all problems. It has learned that it can’t do that. In that sense we have left behind, I hope, some of the naivety that was originally prevalent in the historical period of the Enlightenment.

FWF: We are talking about an intense, communicative exchange process.

Mittelstraß: Oh yes. Not so long ago, scientists had to be understood only by other scientists. Now, as I already said – and that is a positive development – they have to make sure they are understood by non-scientists as well. After all, science is funded by society, and society rightly wants to know what social benefits science delivers.

FWF: Is that not a comparatively passive approach, a kind of circle of justification?

Mittelstraß: No. Science is increasingly confronted by problems it does not ‘invent’ for itself, but that simply appear in the world and which the world cannot

We owe a great deal to basic research, but we often find that the positive impact becomes apparent only late in the day.

Jürgen Mittelstraß

solve without involving science. Take environmental problems, health issues, the energy problem; all of these are problems that the world has generated and that were not invented by science, for its own purposes, so to speak. However, such self-created problems do also exist, of course. We then speak of basic or science-driven research. We owe a great deal to basic research, but we often find that the positive impact becomes apparent only late in the day. That is a fact overlooked by the widespread notion on the part of politicians and society that the outcomes and activities of science have to produce an immediate effect. Overcoming this sort of naivety is another order of the day. Science also needs a great deal of stamina.

FWF: And, hence, so do policy-makers.

Mittelstraß: … they should have stamina too, but they don’t, as a rule.

FWF: … and this creates more problems of synchronisation than in any other field.

Mittelstraß: Oh yes, the time scales of science and politics are not the same.

FWF: Science caught in the dilemma between having the necessary leeway, diversity, even a non-binding status and being used as a problem solving mechanism for the ‘grand challenges’?

Mittelstraß: That’s a true dilemma in which science finds itself here. In simplified terms one might say: being earmarked for specific programmes, research

Bright minds and talents should be supported in a targeted manner.

Jürgen Mittelstraß

programmes, is poison for science. These programmes are usually not designed by science itself. On the other hand, scientists are also obliged to engage in a certain rhetoric if they want to achieve something for themselves – not only in terms of recognition but also in terms of resources. You have to howl with the wolves and speak up in favour of programmes even if your own ideas are totally different and your assumption is they will not achieve much. Putting umpteen billions into neuro-research – as Brussels does right now – is probably nonsensical. It gets you more bureaucracy than research outcomes. Bright minds and talents should be supported in a targeted manner. Luckily, Brussels is also aware of that and lets the ERC get on with its work.

FWF: How much technical knowledge and expertise does a minister of science and research need?

Mittelstraß: At present, we have a minister in Austria who knows very well how science works, and that is important. On the other hand, this very fact might make him suspect on the political scene, if he is viewed exclusively as an advocate of science. In this respect, what we are currently seeing in the government negotiations in Austria is an exemplary process. Even if it is very desirable from the science point of view to be represented by true expertise at ministerial level, it is very unfortunate that this very circumstance might impair the minister’s impact in the political sphere. How one should ward off this risk I do not know. On a positive note it must be said that Austrian science as represented by its organisations communicates very clearly and in exemplary manner, i.e. at a nice distance from pure lobbying, a phenomenon that has always existed in science, of course. In Austria what really needs to be achieved is to assign science, research and – linked to that – academic training the right place in society: not on the periphery. Science and the responsibility associated with it need to be moved in from the margins towards the political core.

FWF: In your view, what are the chances that this will actually happen?

Mittelstraß: You have to be an incurable optimist to give a positive answer to this question. I am such an optimist and people probably see me that way, i.e. as an idealist. If I were not, or if science were not also idealistic in this sense, everything would be lost. I like to call that – in the Kantian sense – optimism as a moral duty. That is my academic self.

Jürgen Mittelstraß is born 1936 in Düsseldorf. After studies (1956–1961) in Bonn, Erlangen, Hamburg and Oxford, Ph.D. in philosophy at the University Erlangen in 1961; habilitation in 1968. 1970–2005 Professor of Philosophy and Philosophy of Science in Constance. 1997–1999 President of the German Philosophical Association. 2002–2008 President of the Academia Europaea (London). Since 2005, Chairman of the Austrian Science Board. 1989 Leibniz-Prize of the German Research Foundation (DFG). Six national and international honorary degrees and numerous national and international awards. He has published numerous books.


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