Helga Nowotny, Fellow 1981/1982, speaks about the Wissenschaftskolleg’s founding year, its aftereffects, and the consequences of the pandemic
Let’s look back at the year 1981 - that was when an infrastructure to attract Fellows first emerged: how did you learn that you were invited to come to the Wissenschaftskolleg?
It seems that, originally, the Wissenschaftskolleg invited Norbert Elias for the first year. But as he was at the ZIF in Bielefeld at the time, he declined and suggested me instead. Apparently, the decision-making committees took up the suggestion and I received a written invitation. My impression was that the Founding Rector, Peter Wapnewski, was very influential in the recruiting process if one looks at the many Germanists among the Fellows of the first year.
Do you still remember the first time you entered the Villa Linde, Wallotstraße 19? What were your impressions of this place?
I don’t have precise memories of my first day at the Kolleg. But I remember the color mood inside the building: shades of beige and rose. It took some time to get used to it, but it fitted well with the colors of autumn around the building: the blaze of color of the old trees, the lake, the morning fog. The Germanists recited poems about autumn and German forests – I suppose with a pinch of irony.
The first Fellow community at the Kolleg formed in October 1981. How did you all come together?
The main routines back then were similar to today’s – common meals and colloquia – but they also differed. In the dining room, we sat at along a U-shaped table with the Rector presiding at the head– the famous “King Arthur’s Round Table”. Unimaginable today, the food was delivered from a nearby retirement home – no comparison with the high culinary culture that later developed at the Kolleg. So, it was all the more exciting to discover the restaurants and culture of West Berlin in small groups. There were a number of strong personalities among us: I remember especially Gershom Scholem, Ivan Illich, and Hartmut von Hentig, who – this was long before the pedophilia scandal at the Odenwald School – was very respected and who exhibited great pedagogical zeal. The group dynamics were also shaped by the fact that many of the invited Fellows already knew each other. I remember especially clearly how intense the contact with the Kolleg staff was then. A kind of fraternization and sororization took place. There were wonderful flowing transitions and much experimentation in this institution still in the making.
The founding took place with a huge ambition: a retreat for brilliant minds, concentration, learned disputation, freedom – but also international impetus and highlights for walled-in West Berlin. How did this ambition work out in everyday life?
This founding idea was very powerful. But the exchange of ideas functioned mainly for those working on related topics. The others, and this included me, received far fewer impulses and had to exert greater effort to find new starting points for discussion. With only eighteen Fellows, the group may also have been too small to form discussion groups. At the same time, and despite some international personalities, I remember a certain provincialism. I will never forget the moment when Michal Peled Ginsburg – we were the only two female Fellows – announced that she was pregnant. What followed was a heated discussion among the Fellows whether a woman “expecting”, as it was still called at the time, should even be allowed to be a Fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg.
In that year, the gender proportions in science were a topic not only because of that announcement.
No! The topic permeated the entire endeavor in a perplexing and novel way, at least for me. This is why I decided to make it the subject of my public colloquium, although I had actually planned differently.
So in your case the Kolleg fulfilled its task of raising new questions among the Fellows! Let me quote from your colloquium lecture: “I am speaking about a taboo and thus about something that was previously unthinkable: that women have something radically different to say about the natural sciences; that there could be a specifically female epistemology, one that can’t be classified in the conventional variants of philosophical realism, but that instead, in this case radically, denies the possibilities of access to the real world and even objectification; that female thinking would have to succeed in transcending the separation between subject and object, between knowledge that does not seek to dominate and the usual science that embodies these principles.” How did the audience respond to your hypotheses at that time?
The discussion following my talk turned out to be extremely lively and somewhat turbulent. The intelligent men in the audience kept silent and the others were attacked by the women who were present, sometimes in a rather sharp way. But the topic found its continuation later, when I co-edited together with Karin Hausen the book “Wie männlich ist die Wissenschaft?” (“How Male is Science?”).
To understand the intense reaction you also have to know that the Colloquium had a completely different form at the time: it was a big public event – a staging like a theater performance. Of course, this was important for making the Kolleg known and it worked. But it put tremendous pressure on those who had to give a lecture. Whoever’s turn it was knew that the following day or the day after, a review would be printed in the Tagesspiegel, a Berlin daily newspaper – just like after a premiere at the opera. There was also an unbelievable competition among Berlin’s society: who would be invited and be privileged to socialize afterward at the Kolleg over wine and pretzels? It somewhat resembled a courtly society – Norbert Elias would have been delighted if he had come.
And how does that quote sound to you now, forty years later?
The quote reflects the Zeitgeist and the language and feminist thinking of the time. But when I look back, I note that some of these ideas definitely continue into the present, for example in Londa Schiebinger’s successful initiatives for “gendered innovation” and “gendered science” that have become mainstream by now. Medical research is no longer imaginable without taking the sexual differences in the human body into consideration. Today, there is no longer any doubt that there can be no good science that does not keep the category “gender” in mind. That a woman could become the Rector of the Wissenschaftskolleg or the Director of a Max Planck Institute was inconceivable back then. Thus, we have progressed quite a bit. But the topic of gender in science will not lose its relevance until it no longer has to be actively made a topic, until it is self-evident. Then when a position is to be filled, only qualifications will count.
At that time, the Kolleg was reproached for being elitist. Did you agree with this criticism?
No, I consider it perfectly legitimate to make a selection of outstanding scientists and scholars and to give them the kind of support the Kolleg provides. Therefore, I actively defended the Kolleg against hostilities from the Berlin universities. Mazzino Montinari and I – we were apparently viewed as “the leftists” in the group – were asked to meet with representatives of the universities. We obliged and tried to convince our interlocutors that founding the Kolleg was advantageous for the entire Berlin research landscape. The universities, of course, argued that the Kolleg would divert funds from university research and teaching, funds that should better have been given to them. We were adamant that inviting excellent international researchers would benefit all Berlin institutions of higher learning.
In 1989, your book “Eigenzeit” (in physics: proper time; but also “own time”) came out. In it, you encourage your readers not to submit to today’s time regimes, which are growing ever faster. Could this idea have something to do with your experiences at the Kolleg?
It surely played a role for me. I was catapulted from a very intense professional and academic life into the paradisiacal conditions at the Kolleg. At that time, I directed the European Center for Social Welfare in Vienna, a UN-affiliated international institution with many applied social research projects. Simultaneously, I carried out my own research in the social studies of science, living in a kind of two parallel worlds. Suddenly, I found myself in the Grunewald district, with lots of free time to read, think, and discuss,– it was wonderful and led me to a question that had interested me already before: why do some people have more time than others? Why does one have more time in certain phases of life? What does one do with it? The experience of the Kolleg confirmed my realization that here was an interesting set of questions to explore.
Would you say that other questions from your Fellow year had continuing effects on your further development?
What I took with me from the Kolleg and have pursued ever since is the question of how inter- and transdisciplinarity can succeed. The Wissenschaftskolleg plays an important role in providing a possible answer – today much more than when it was founded, because many more disciplines are now represented. Direct exchanges with scholars from other academic fields and across the boundaries between the humanities, the social sciences, and the natural sciences are indispensable in order to recognize the premises and blind spots of one’s own field. A whole new world can open up in extensive talks with colleagues from differing specialties. For me as a researcher in sociology of science, the study of science, technology, and society, interdisciplinarity is easier to practice than for those who stay within their own discipline, but I took with me from the Kolleg the question of the preconditions for fruitful interdisciplinary work. Incidentally, many years later, to further interdisciplinarity was also an important impetus behind establishing the European Research Council, ERC, of which I was a founding member in 2007 and later became its President until the end of 2013. An ERC grant gives researchers their Eigenzeit, free time of their own for the full period of five years for a project of their own choice. It presents them with the opportunity to put together a first-class, hand-picked team to work with. During the current pandemic, we experience the urgency of cooperating across disciplinary lines. Whether one works on simulation models or conducts medical research, it is crucial to place the findings into a broader, political, and societal context. If one loses sight of the context, one operates with blinders and, unfortunately, often runs into a mono-disciplinary wall.
One suggestion for expanding transdisciplinary work is the concept “Mode 2” that you and colleagues presented in 1994. In it, you advocated not only eliminating the boundaries between disciplines, but also opening research up to non-academic actors, in the sense of “citizen science”. Can that be applied to the Kolleg?
There is a tension between the retreat into one’s own time and the step out into wider society. But science changes dynamically and must constantly try out new ways of doing things and new formats. The point is to develop something new arising from this tension. Science has arrived in the midst of society. It starts with new forms of science communication, in which the Kolleg plays an outstanding role. But couldn’t we move beyond that and also find institutional forms of opening up to non-academic actors?
How great is your trust in non-academic actors today, in times of hostility to science, “alternative facts”, and conspiracy theories?
I wouldn’t waste a minute of my time on the hard core of the conspiracy theorists. But overall and despite fake news and all the rest, it seems to me that science has regained ground and trust through the pandemic. Having several effective vaccines available after one year is unprecedented and a triumph for science. But it would not have been possible without many years of investing in basic research that seemed “useless” at the time.
Has science in general, or just virology gained in the crisis?
At the moment, a great deal of attention is focused on the life sciences. But the much greater consequence of the pandemic is another surge in digitalization. In the struggle against the virus it became clear how decisive it is to collect and store huge amounts of data and how helpful Artificial Intelligence can be in assessing them and discovering underlying patterns. We are entering a phase in which it is no longer exaggerated to speak of a co-evolution between human beings and digital machines, driven by data and algorithms. That raises many questions. Data are not like oil, a natural resource; they are created through decisions about their collection, storage, and processing. Algorithms can’t replace human decisions either; they are themselves the result of human decisions dealing with questions like which data and which algorithms do we need and for which purpose? Where is the boundary between public interest and protecting personal privacy? Such questions need to be addressed in a broad public discussion.
At the Kolleg, we’ve discussed such questions in the series “Thinking the Virus”. Specifically, we were concerned with digitalization in another way: the Colloquium, workshops, and meetings took place only as video conferences anymore. That often makes interacting with very distant people much easier, but what would the Kolleg be without presence?
There can be no virtual Wissenschaftskolleg. But we haven’t all had only bad experiences with modern video conference systems. When the Peter Drucker Forum, for example, moved online this year, there was agreement that small virtual panel discussions well prepared in advance and with a good moderator, were far superior to the usual format. Also, the Kolleg might gain more flexibility by integrating digital communication into its ways of working. After all, we know how difficult, if not impossible, it is to make researchers in the natural sciences leave their laboratories for ten months. In a hybrid fellowship, obligatory presence could alternate with phases of communication from afar. That’s how “Mode 2” arose, incidentally. We arranged to meet in different places around the world – usually in nice hotels in remote regions and with good food, where we would discuss intensely for three days, from morning till night. Before we separated, we split the tasks to be done by each of us until our next meeting. We were an academic traveling circus, but a hard-working one! Charlemagne, too, the “traveling Emperor”, governed his empire from alternating courts. Maybe this could become a new model for thematic focus groups at the Kolleg as well.
I’m happy to pass the idea on! But won’t the pandemic’s primary consequences for science be empty coffers?
All European member states are currently taking on enormous debt. The funding for science is downright negligible in comparison. Certainly, budgets fluctuate, but that does not mean the end of science. Much more important is that we deal with these fluctuations responsibly. I’m thinking especially of young researchers. If there are fewer positions at universities, we must actively ensure that other professional perspectives open up for these highly qualified and highly motivated young people. This must not be seen as a loss for science, quite the contrary. The point is that in this way they carry science into society and bring their knowledge and skills to bear in diverse, but societally relevant contexts. And this would be a gain for us all.
The interview was conducted by Daniel Schönpflug.