„Cooperation with China is indispensable“

Research at the turn of the times: Why the long-standing science manager Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker advises cautious continuity and where he sees new potential. 

Professor Winnacker, for decades you have been committed to the internationalisation of German science. What motivated you to do so and what has been achieved?
Science knows no borders and it hardly thrives in intellectual isolation. One of the last universal geniuses, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, is a good example of this: he was not satisfied with discussions in his hometown of Hanover, but sought competition with European peers throughout his life – for example with Christiaan Huygens in Amsterdam and Isaac Newton in London. Working in such a network is indispensable today. When I took office as DFG President, I therefore made internationalisation a priority. We not only established international Research Training Groups, but also offices in important partner countries such as the USA, Russia, China, Japan and India. In addition, as chairman of EUROHORCS, i.e. the European Union Research Organisations Heads Of Research Councils, I prepared the establishment of a transnational, European research council along the lines of the DFG. The European Research Council, ERC for short, began its work in 2007, and as its first Secretary General I was able to contribute to the growing together of research. 

Today we have a war in Europe, the hostilities between the great powers are increasing, the seemingly unstoppable internationalisation is faltering. Are we witnessing the end of a golden age, also in science?
The post-war period until the early years of the 21st century could perhaps be described as a golden age of science. But with increasing restrictions in a number of countries, this is over. In 2014, for example, Switzerland limited immigration and the free movement of persons, thus breaking its bilateral agreements with the EU. For the ERC, the country is therefore only one partner among many. This was followed in 2020 by Brexit, which made the UK an unassociated third country for the ERC. The number of British and Swiss nationals in EU programmes has fallen drastically in recent years. This is a bitter loss for European research, because both Switzerland and the UK have excellent universities and non-university research institutions. They have been important partners for Germany in particular for decades. 

As DFG President, you opened the Sino-German Science Centre in Beijing in 2000 together with the Chinese partner organisation. It was intended to strengthen cooperation between the two countries in research and teaching. What has become of it?
At that time, we actually built a joint building with the National Natural Science Foundation of China, NSFC for short, in the immediate vicinity of its main building in Beijing. The centre still exists today. In the meantime, cooperation with China has become much more difficult than it was back then. At the time, China was considered a developing country. Today it has become a strategic competitor. Nevertheless, the Sino-German Centre is a success story and I am proud of it. The Centre has brought us intensive scientific contacts and cooperation in this huge country, which is about ten times larger than Russia in terms of population and holds enormous scientific potential. 

A recent study by the Hoover Institution at Stanford University criticises the close cooperation. Its author, Jeffrey Stoff, cites hundreds of publications involving German and Chinese scientists. How do you assess the study?
Fortunately, many joint publications have been produced over the years, most of which were funded by the DFG and the Max Planck Society (MPG). Our two scientific organisations had divided up China’s academic world in the 1990s: The MPG worked mainly with the Chinese Academy of Science CAS, the DFG with the NSFC, and with the individual universities, respectively. The Americans welcomed this kind of cooperation until about 20 years ago. What’s more, they even took us as their role model. I remember a joint appearance with Professor Arden Bement, the former head of the DFG’s partner organisation in the USA, the National Science Foundation, when it opened its own centre in Beijing in 2006. Today, cooperation with China is viewed much more critically in the USA. So it is probably no coincidence that German-Chinese cooperation in science is now being taken to task in such a way at Stanford. 

In the spring of 2022, Federal Minister of Research Bettina Stark-Watzinger called for attentiveness in scientific cooperation with China. A justified appeal?
Yes and no. Some issues, for example in the IT and AI sector, can be solved at national level. Other issues, for example in the field of climate protection or marine research, require intensive, international cooperation – also with China. Because the results of many of these projects can have financial consequences or be of military use, it is important to carefully examine who cooperates with whom and where, and how the results are communicated. The situation is certainly not simple. For example, the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of research plays a central role here, but this is not the case in China. And when head of state Xi Jinping recently called for the fusion of civilian and military research, it must make us think. In my view, clear dual-use projects, whose results can be used both for civilian and military purposes, should take place without the participation of Chinese scientists. Together with the DFG, the Leopoldina has adopted wise recommendations on the subject of dual use. They should make it easier to find the right balance here. 

Around forty thousand Chinese are studying in Germany and many of them are doing their master’s and doctoral theses here. A security risk?
Possibly so. But how can this be checked? It would hardly be practicable for a central body to monitor it. I think it would make more sense to check the theses individually to see if they are sensitive. The responsibility for this should lie in the hands of the project leaders or the review committees.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, research projects with Russia have been put on hold or terminated. What future do the traditional German-Russian academic relations have?
As long as Russia is waging this war, institutional cooperation can no longer take place. The Federal Government has decided on its “Roma locuta – causa finita” here I think that’s right and appropriate.

Institutional cooperation is one thing, personal contacts with colleagues in Russia and China are another. German academics have cultivated such connections for many years. What of this is still welcome today, what is acceptable and what goes too far?
As far as Russia is concerned, I think private scientific contacts are hardly responsible at present, because they can endanger researchers there. However, if such connections are maintained, the institutional sponsors must be informed. Transparency is the be-all and end-all here. China is not currently waging war against a neighbour. However, as already described, we should look closely and not fund some projects. Nevertheless, I consider scientific cooperation with China in particular to be desirable, if not indispensable. After all, the country has excellent universities and research organisations. In the latest Times Higher Education ranking for 2023, Tsinghua and Beijing rank 16th and 17th, while the best German universities, the two Munich universities, follow only in 30th and 33rd place. 

What future do you see for the major international programmes in space, environmental and energy research? Let’s think about the ISS, climate research and basic research in physics.
The programmes should continue, as long as the sanctions allow it. But the constant discussion of differences of opinion, for example on how to deal with minorities such as the Uyghurs, must be part of our scientific profile. We must not rest on these issues when dealing with the Chinese or Russian side.  

How do you assess German foreign science policy as a means of diplomacy?
Foreign science policy always arises when scientists maintain international contacts. These then not only reflect the quality of the respective projects and people, but also testify to the importance of the science systems and institutions from which they come. Often such contacts take place below the radar screens of official institutions, and occasionally they are used when a cooperation is not immediately intended to have an official character. Foreign science policy has always been a major topic, for example when it came to establishing diplomatic relations with Israel at the time.  Three scientists, Otto Hahn, Werner Heisenberg and Feodor Lynen, who enjoyed the confidence of Chaim Weizmann, travelled to Israel in the 1950s to pave the way for a meeting between Ben Gurion and Konrad Adenauer. Whether there are currently scientists whose reputation is great enough to influence the Russian government together with Russian colleagues, I dare to doubt. In the field of foreign science policy, there is a very nice book entitled “Wettlauf ums Wissen”, edited by Georg Schütte and published in 2008. Perhaps now, after the proclaimed turn of the times, we should consider a new edition of this book or a conference on this topic. 

Which regions of the world should Germany focus more on in the future? Where does potential lie dormant?
In Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Thailand, India, Brazil, Argentina and Chile. Small Singapore has at least two important universities, on the basis of which the city-state was able to become a member of the Human Frontier Science Program (HFSP). The situation is similar in Japan and South Korea. Japan was the initiator of this programme in the late 1990s, which still exists today and spends around 55 million US dollars annually on cutting-edge science. At the time, Japan did not have a particularly good reputation in science, which has since changed fundamentally. When one thinks of Taiwan, one thinks of the National Taiwan University (NTU), but also of Academia Sinica and the Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry, Yuan T. Lee, who was President of Academia Sinica until 2006. I met him often in Lindau, and once also visited him in Taipei at the Academia. Stronger scientific cooperation with Taiwan is definitely worthwhile. The DFG has maintained intensive scientific relations with India for decades, especially with the various Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), but also with INSA, the Indian Academy of Sciences, and the International Center of Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (ICGEB) with its two branches in Trieste and in Delhi. During my presidency, a DFG office was even established in Delhi. Cooperation with countries in South America has a long tradition and a promising future, for example in the operation of large telescopes, in environmental sciences and biomedical research. 

What role can the GDNÄ play as a German-speaking scientific society in the modern scientific world?
The GDNÄ must act as a credible mediator of science, today more than ever. Perhaps it should join forces more with other players to this end, for example with the Leopoldina. A good starting point would be engagement with school students. In this area, the GDNÄ has achieved impressive things in the past years.


© Michael Till / LMU

Prof. Dr Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker, GDNÄ President in 1999 and 2000.

About the person

Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker was born in Frankfurt/Main in 1941. He studied chemistry at the ETH Zurich and received his doctorate there in 1968. Postdoctoral positions followed at the University of California, Berkeley, from 1968 to 1970 and at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm (1970-1972). In 1980, Winnacker was appointed Professor of Biochemistry at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich; in 1984, he took over as Director of the Laboratory of Molecular Biology – Gene Centre at the University of Munich. From 1987 to 1993 Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker was Vice-President and from 1998 to 2006 President of the German Research Foundation. During this time, from 1999 to 2000, he was President of the GDNÄ. From 2007 to 2009 he served as First Secretary General of the European Research Council in Brussels and from 2009 to 2015 as Secretary General of the Human Frontier Science Program in Strasbourg. He is a member of several scientific academies, including the Leopoldina and the US National Academy of Medicine, and has received numerous honours, including the Grand Cross of Merit with Star of the Federal Republic of Germany, the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Star of the Empire of Japan and the International Science and Technology Cooperation Award of the People’s Republic of China. Winnacker is the author of numerous scientific publications. These include the textbook “Genes and Clones. An Introduction to Genetic Engineering” (1984), the non-fiction books “The Genome”, (1996), “Viruses, the Secret Rulers” (1999) and “My Life with Viruses” (2021).

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