The German Academy of Sciences Leopoldina was founded in 1652 as the Academia Naturae Curiosorum in the Free and Imperial City of Schweinfurt by the far-sighted involvement of four doctors who were concerned to increase the body of scientific knowledge for use in medicine. The Leopoldina is the world’s longest-existing academy devoted to scientific research and is comparable in its age, size and scientific relevance with the Royal Society, which was founded in London in 1660, the Académie des sciences in Paris (founded in 1666) and the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei in Rome (founded in 1603). The Academy was officially recognized by Emperor Leopold I in 1677 and awarded the privileges of an Imperial Academy in 1687, which it did not give up itself until the end of the 19th century. It bore the title of Sacri Romani Imperii Academia Caesareo-Leopoldina Naturae Curiosorum since 1687, from which its modern-day title “Leopoldina” is derived.
For the first 225 years of its existence the headquarters of the Leopoldina changed depending on the seats of its presidents. Halle (Saale) has been the headquarters of the Leopoldina since 1878. It was even able to retain its political and scientific independence in the decades of the National Socialist and GDR socialist regimes as far as was possible.
The Academy consists of 1,300 elected members, who are subdivided into categories and groups including all disciplines of the sciences and medicine as well as related areas such as behavioural and social sciences and the humanities. Elections of new members to the Academy are carried out by the Presidium on application by existing members. About three quarters of the members live in Germany, Austria and Switzerland and a quarter in other countries around the world.
The Leopoldina is governed by a twelve-member Presidium and advised by a Senate, which is elected by the members. Its offices, archives and library are housed at its headquarters in Halle, where it carries out its own scientific historical research programmes with the help of subsidies obtained through external funding.
In 2008 the Leopoldina was nominated as National Academy of Sciences and since then has been responsible for giving scientifically-based political advice in Germany.
In this field it works together with the German Academy of Science and Engineering (acatech) and the academies of the various German states, using their expertise.
Under the leadership of the Leopoldina, a coordination committee was established for this purpose consisting of three representatives each of the Leopoldina, acatech and the German state academies. One representative of the state academies is nominated by the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences. The coordination committee agrees on the subjects to be investigated and establishes working groups which develop positions on politically and socially relevant topics.
The Leopoldina recently initiated projects of particular socio-political relevance. These include the the Academy Group “Growing Old in Germany”, a joint project of the Leopoldina and acatech with the support of the Jacobs Foundation. The origin of the topic was the well-known phenomenon of demographic change in Germany with all its consequences and problems. The aim of the three-year project (2006–2008) was to develop and present the best scientific bases and alternatives for comprehensive social reform. The working group publicly submitted its final report and recommendations in spring 2009 after it had initially been presented to Germany’s President Horst Köhler in Berlin in March 2009.
The Academy Group “Fertility and Social Development” a joint project of the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and the Leopoldina, started its work in spring 2009 for two years and will prepare a high-level interdisciplinary position paper with scientific and family-related recommendations on this socially significant issue. It, too, is subsidized by the Jacobs Foundation.
The starting point of the planned “state-of-the-art” report will be the challenge that will result for Germany and several other industrial economies as a result of demographic change.
While the risks and opportunities of ageing and longevity have already been discussed at length, most recently by the Academy Group “Growing Old in Germany”, a study on fertility trends is still lacking.
The Academy Group “Fertility” will not carry out its own empirical studies, however; instead it will prepare available information for a broadly-based group of recipients in government and social groups while also making clear recommendations on future research and data collection requirements.
Examples of subjects for position papers and recommendations by the Leopoldina for political and public circles in Germany from previous years are vaccination, the amendment to the German Stem Cell Act, combating infectious diseases, pharmacotherapy for children, future energy supplies in Germany, and German genetic engineering law reform.
Besides political advice, the Leopoldina sees its essential tasks in promoting science and disseminating scientific knowledge. For this purpose, it holds regular events in Germany and abroad. All results are printed and published in the Academy’s series of publications.
The Leopoldina also supports the training of young up-and-coming scientists in its Leopoldina promotional programme and supports young scientists in its Young Academy. In its capacity as a National Academy, it still represents German scientists in international academic committees.
Over the past few years, the Leopoldina has increased its links with scientific communities in and outside Europe, especially through its presence on committees such as the European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC), the Federation of the European Academies of Medicine (FEAM), the InterAcademy Medical Panel (IAMP) and the All European Academies (ALLEA). The Leopoldina has been accepted into the InterAcademy Panel (IAP) as a National Academy. These many memberships are the prerequisite for advising public authorities, parliaments, governments and the interested public on scientific matters at international level by publishing position papers and giving advice.Through the cooperation, begun some years ago, with the national academies of the G8 states in the lead-up to the annual G8 summit talks, the Leopoldina has also become involved in preparing recommendations on problems affecting the entire world and has made statements on subjects such as “Adapting to Climate Change and the Transition to a Carbon-Low Society”, “Global Health”, “Sustainability, Securing Energy and Climate Protection”, “Promoting and Protecting Innovation”, “Avian Flu and Infectious Diseases” or “Science and Technology for the Development of Africa”. These recommendations are used by heads of state and government in preparing their negotiations during the summit talks.
In its endeavours to combine tradition with modern-day scientific development, the Leopoldina supports interdisciplinary debate and the dissemination of scientific knowledge after the motto of its founding fathers: Exploring Nature for the Benefit of Mankind.
The author has been the President of the Leopoldina since 2003. He studied medicine in Münster, Innsbruck and Kiel and obtained his doctorate in Göttingen in 1960. After a research fellowship in the USA he became professor of Clinical Virology and Immunology at the University of Würzburg in 1975. Volker ter Meulen has been awarded several prizes and is member of many organizations and committees.