Always keeping science in mind

Federal Chancellor honoured with Harnack Medal Always keeping science in mind

Federal Chancellor Merkel not only holds a doctorate in physics, but has performed outstanding services for science in her 16-year term of office as head of government. This was emphasised by the Max Planck Society, which has now honoured her with its highest award: the Harnack Medal.

Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel receives the Harnack Medal from the Max Planck Society.

Chancellor Merkel at the presentation of the Harnack Medal: The Max Planck Society “is Germany’s calling card in the world for basic research”.

Photo: Federal Government/Bergmann

Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel received the Harnack Medal from the President of the Max Planck Society (MPG), Professor Martin Stratmann. In bestowing its highest honour, the Society acknowledges Merkel’s outstanding services to science. “I thank you from the bottom of my heart, firstly for your invaluable work in the service of progress and secondly, of course, for the honour you have conferred upon me today”, said the Federal Chancellor.

Due to COVID-19, the award ceremony took place with a limited number of attendees at the Humboldt Carré in Berlin. “The award is based on a unanimous decision by our Senate and is intended to express our great appreciation for you”, said Max Planck Society President Stratmann in his laudation. “As a person as well as in your actions and public appearances, you have helped science to flourish impressively in this country.” 

The Harnack Medal is named after the theologian Adolf von Harnack, who was the first President of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society, the predecessor organisation of the Max Planck Society, from 1911 until 1930.

First head of government to receive the award

“You had the respect of the academic community from the start, and have retained and built on it in the last 16 years”, Stratmann continued. Science in Germany has received development opportunities that are remarkable by international standards. For example, the Excellence Initiative, the Higher Education Pact and the Pact for Research and Innovation have been continued and expanded.

The Harnack Medal has only been awarded 33 times since 1924: 10 times by the Kaiser Wilhelm Society (1924-1936) and 23 times by the Max Planck Society (1953-2017). Most recipients of the award have been academics and industrialists, with only a few politicians being honoured to date. Following three Federal Presidents, Theodor Heuss (1959), Heinrich Lübcke (1964) and Richard von Weizsäcker (1990), Angela Merkel is the first Federal Chancellor to receive the honour.

Research and development spending increased

“Receiving this medal is an extraordinary honour for me, and I don’t say that lightly”, said the Federal Chancellor in her acceptance speech. “In my opinion, it’s not a moment too soon for a woman to receive this medal – but better late than never. I am extremely grateful to be able to count myself among the recipients of the medal since 1924.”

The promotion of science and research had always been important to her, she said. “Not only because I worked as a physicist at the Academy of Sciences in the former GDR, but also because, as a politician, I firmly believe that scientific breakthroughs also promote technological, economic and social progress”, said Merkel. “The prosperity in which we live is dependent to a very great extent on scientific breakthroughs.”

That is also why she had always campaigned to increase the share of GDP allocated to investment in research and development, she said. “At 3.18 percent, Germany is now among the front-runners in the world”, the Federal Chancellor emphasised. “It is important to remember that the state alone has not done this; two thirds of this spending comes from industry. We can count ourselves very lucky that more state funding has always given rise to a welcome increase in funds from industry, too.”

Investment in science and research must continue

Looking to the future, Merkel said: “We must do everything possible to strengthen our research competences and capacities,” – not only with a view to achieving future economic success through innovation. “It is also crucial that we, as innovation drivers, can set benchmarks and standards in accordance with our values” – because only those at the forefront can have a say in setting benchmarks and standards.

The Max Planck Society plays a special role in the academic community, Merkel added. Its excellent basic research frequently constitutes the starting point for pioneering scientific findings, technological leaps and all kinds of innovations which are then transferred to the economy and society. “The Max Planck Society is our most tradition-steeped research organisation and the most successful, to judge by the number of Nobel prizes. It is Germany’s calling card in the world for basic research”, the Federal Chancellor emphasised.

Innovations also rely on investment. The Federal Government and the federal states have continually raised their financial contribution – by 72 percent from 2009 to 2019.