When it comes to topics such as climate, energy, demographic change and health, politics and society have a greater need for independent advice from science. The key is to recognise and communicate important and socially-significant developments as early as possible.
The Deutsche Akademie der Naturforscher Leopoldina was appointed the German National Academy of Sciences in 2008. Founded in 1652 and located in Halle an der Saale, the Leopoldina has the longest uninterrupted history of any academy of science in the world. Today, the Leopoldina has about 1,500 members. Scientific excellence, the greatest possible independence from political and other influences outside of science, worldwide internationality and interdisciplinary dialogue are four distinctive characteristics that the Leopoldina has acquired in its over 360-year history and which, as the National Academy, it wants to bring to bear under the conditions of our knowledge-based society.
After all, the great challenges of our time, such as the transition to alternative energies, demographic change, the fight against dangerous diseases, financial and economic crises and climate change, can only be analysed and evaluated competently by institutions that pool scientific expertise to a high degree. The standing scientific committees, in which intensive discussions are held between Leopoldina members and external experts, each follow a single scientific topic area, such as “Climate, Energy and the Environment”, “Health”, “Science and Ethics” or “Demographic Change”. Leopoldina members develop scientifically-founded statements and recommendations regarding challenges that are closely linked to science. In doing so, the Leopoldina not only addresses decision-makers in politics and society, but also the general public: students, teachers and pupils, citizens and journalists looking for reliable information on current scientific findings and alternative forms of action.
The Leopoldina‘s range of topics in science-based policy advice is very broad, but there are four key topics. The first of these covers progress in life sciences and biomedicine. Together with the Academy of Sciences and Humanities in Hamburg, the Leopoldina published the statement “Antibiotic Research – Problems and Perspectives” in early 2013. The document was received with great interest as part of the current discussion on preventing antibiotic resistance and the need to develop new antibiotics. It has also led to the establishment of a round table on these topics, bringing together representatives of science, business and politics to develop strategies for joint action.
The second key topic relates to the development of energy research in the context of the transformation of our energy supply. Together with acatech and the Union of the German Academies of Sciences and Humanities, the Leopoldina has launched the “Energy Systems of the Future” initiative. The initiative is intended to accompany the transition to alternative energies in Germany from an independent perspective. There is an extremely broad spectrum of possible contributions that science can make to the transition to alternative energies, ranging from increasing the efficiency of energy generation and storage through engineering to optimising power grids and studying the behaviour of energy consumers from a social sciences perspective. The statement “Bioenergy – Chances and Limits”, issued in 2012, was regarded as a precise contribution to the debate on the role of bioenergy in the transition to alternative energies.
The challenges of demographic change are the third key topic at Leopoldina. The significant increase in life expectancy observed since the mid-19th century and the high average age of the population – which is expected to rise even further – are firsts in the history of mankind. The Leopoldina presented its most recent statement on this topic at the end of 2012 in cooperation with the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities and the Jacobs Foundation. The “A Future with Children” study involved the collaboration of psychologists, physicians, sociologists, economists, educational researchers and representatives of numerous other disciplines.
The Leopoldina’s fourth key topic is the sustainable development of the science system. To this end, the Leopoldina Presidium presented the discussion paper “The Sustainability of the German Science System” in April 2013. The way the general legal and financial conditions for research and innovation will look in the future is a question in need of urgent attention. The paper puts special emphasis on strengthening universities as the supporting pillars of research, education and knowledge transfer in Germany.
On the occasion of the Leopoldina’s appointment as the National Academy of Sciences, the then German president Horst Köhler affirmed the necessity of independent and science-based policy advice: “The questions of cause and effect political institutions have to deal with are more complex than ever; the challenges societies have to face in the context of globalisation are greater than ever; and the consequences of what we do and do not do are more far-reaching than ever before. The complexity of the situation should encourage political decisions to be backed up by more rather than less scientific reasoning.” The Leopoldina has been pursuing the specific objective of fostering science for the benefit of the people for more than 360 years. By actively advising politics and the public through science, the Leopoldina is continuing this tradition in a contemporary manner for today‘s knowledge-based society.
Prof. Dr. Dr. h. c. mult. Jörg Hacker has been President of the Leopoldina since 2010. He studied biology at the university of Halle and earned his doctorate in 1979. He then joined the university of Würzburg, where he was professor for microbiology from 1988 to 2008. He was president of the Robert Koch Institute from 2008 to 2010. Jörg Hacker is a member of many committees and scientific organisations, such as the United Nations Secretary General’s Scientific Advisory Board.