"The international standing of German science should not get lost"

The Emergency Association of German Science was founded on October 30, 1920. A Jahr100Wissen / 100 years ago interview with Prof. Dr. Volker Remmert, University Professor for the History of Science and Technology, Head of the Interdisciplinary Center for Science and Technology Research.

On October 30, 1920, the association "German Association for the Support and Advancement of Scientific Research - Emergency Association of German Science" was founded in order to avert, quote "the danger of complete collapse of German scientific research due to the current economic plight. The name "Emergency Association" already deviated in the 1930s from the name German Research Association as which it was re-founded in 1949. What was the situation of science after the First World War?

Remmert: The generally precarious economic situation after the war was accompanied by a chronic shortage of funding for colleges and universities and non-university research institutes. In the library sector, important books could no longer be purchased and journals had to be cancelled. The Berlin State Library, for example, had subscribed to about 2,200 foreign periodicals in 1914, but by 1920 only 140 could be financed. The money for necessary renewal or reconstruction measures had to be sought outside of state channels (such as the Rockefeller Foundation). Politics did indeed deal with the problems of science, but a real solution was not in sight during the inflationary period, given the large number of urgent and expensive problems. Science in Germany felt threatened by a lack of money and by international isolation. This meant that not only the quality of science in Germany but also and above all the emotionally important German leadership role in international science, to which it was believed to have a natural right upon, was facing extinction.

The Treaty of Versailles left Germany solely responsible for the First World War and excluded it from many international events. In this situation the new Emergency Association was constituted. Which tasks did it take on?

Remmert: The Emergency Association of German Science was founded in 1920 to counteract the bottlenecks in science funding and the promotion of young researchers. With this self-governing body, which allocated the funds provided by the state and also by industry, a new instrument was created to which all scientific institutions of the German Reich belonged. All scientists (though there were hardly any female professors), especially young people without permanent positions or their own laboratories, were now able to apply for financial support and independently pursue their own research ideas on this basis. The basis for the allocation of funding was the evaluation of their applications in a relatively transparent and democratic procedure. This new instrument, born out of necessity, was soon imitated abroad as a model of modern science promotion.

In her speech at the conference on January 24, 1921, Reichtag member Clara Zetkin summed up the situation in a nutshell: "Scientific research is seriously threatened and cannot continue. [...] The individual states have barely transferred the funds, which are necessary to maintain university teaching. No funds are available for the maintenance and continuation of scientific research. The research material is used up, the instruments are worn out. New acquisitions are not possible because the prices of materials and instruments have risen enormously. The publication of scientific journals and books is called into question by the usurious prices of production. [...] It is a disgrace that science has to go around with the begging bag." So what happened next?

Remmert: In July 1919, Max Planck had indeed stated: "For science is one of the last remaining assets left to us by the war, the only ones that even the covetousness of our enemies has not yet been able to do any substantial damage to. Thus Planck, like others, such as the president of the Kaiser Wilhelm Society, Adolf von Harnack, who said in early 1920 that the war was lost, "science, however, despite the loss of thousands of its bearers, is still standing upright, but it too is threatened with extinction," expressed the widespread view that science in Germany was one of the few areas in which it was still undefeated. The associated catchword was the "international standing of German science", which should not be lost. Of course, this rhetorical trick was one of the standard arguments when it came to opening up new resources for science in Germany, which was in dire financial straits. In fact, the financial situation of science in Germany eased until the mid-1920s. By then, however, the Emergency Association had grown into an important role in state science support, which it retained.

Already at the beginning there were over 2000 applications. What were the requirements and what were the criteria for selection?

Remmert: The Emergency Association allocated research grants to young scientists, supported individual scientific research and research groups, funded library budgets and allocated printing cost subsidies for scientific publications, whether it were books or journals. The form of application had not yet been determined; often a short letter was sufficient to announce a need for funding (this was still the case in the 1980s, by the way). The allocation of funds was decided in expert committees, although expert opinions were rarely obtained in advance. The Emergency Association quickly developed a lively activity. Gaps in the library budgets were filled and, above all, foreign literature was again acquired. Subsidies for printing costs were granted, young scientists were supported - in the first eight years 3,700 grants were allocated, some of which were nevertheless on the verge of subsistence -, travel grants were paid to geologists and archaeologists, etc.

A very high priority for the Emergency Association was the support of scientific publications. Why was that and how did it work?

Remmert: Adequate state funding for research and lecturing was hardly affordable after the war. The underfunding had a direct effect on the scientific publication system because the scientific libraries, i.e. especially the university libraries, reacted, for example, by cancelling scientific journals especially from abroad because they were unaffordable. The dwindling purchasing power of the student public led to the collapse of the textbook market, so that the existence of scientific publishing houses was also threatened by this. In some disciplines, special problems were added: i.e. the difficult mathematical formula theorem, for which only a few printeries had the necessary type material, was particularly expensive and thus drove production costs even higher. Moreover, after the war paper prices had risen to a multiple of their pre-war level, which was immediately reflected in price increases for periodicals and books.
In this situation, the Emergency Association provided considerable financial resources to stabilize the scientific publication system. Incidentally, this was also because German-language scientific literature, for example in the fields of classical philology, mathematics, medicine, natural and technical sciences, was in principle still an export hit, and the preservation of the "international standing of the German scientific book", as it was called at the time, was of great importance in foreign and cultural policy.

The Emergency Association was put on an equal footing in 1934 under the National Socialist government. What happened after the Second World War?

Remmert: The "Third Reich" and the Second World War had a serious impact on the sciences in Germany. The dismissal of Jewish scientists in universities and research institutions left lasting gaps. The international relations of the scientists were increasingly affected by the political circumstances. During the Second World War, the staffing levels at the universities became increasingly thin in all disciplines. In addition, many scientists were called upon to carry out war research and were thus withdrawn from the usual research and lecturing activities. Their results were often subject to secrecy, so that publication activity declined overall. For their part, the possibilities for publication were severely limited during the war by the paper curtailment. After 1945, the reconstruction of the sciences and the publication system proceeded sluggishly amid the destruction of the universities and the daily economic hardship. Overall, the development of the sciences in Germany between 1945 and 1949 was characterized by (1) the collapse of the institutions that organized and promoted science, (2) Allied control of research and the dismantling of production and research facilities, (3) the closure, denazification, and Allied control of universities, and (4) an exodus of personnel, especially from the Soviet occupation zone to West Germany, but also from the Western zones, especially into the Anglo-Saxon world.
The year 1945 marked a major turning point for state research funding in Germany. Centrally funded research institutions such as the Reich Institutes and the Kaiser Wilhelm Society (from 1948 on Max Planck Society), lost the flow of funds from Berlin, as did central research funding institutions such as the German Research Foundation. After 1945, research funding initially became primarily a matter for the states. From 1949, the federal government began to develop more and more research policy initiatives in West Germany, from the establishment of research funding in the Ministry of Atomic Energy (departmental research) to the founding of a corresponding ministry for scientific research in 1962. This phase also saw the beginning of an unprecedented expansion of higher education in the 1960s and 1970s and the establishment of two solvent research funding institutions, the Thyssen Foundation (1959) and the Volkswagen Foundation (1961). During this phase, the DFG has developed since the 1950s into an indispensable institution for the university science sector.

How important is the DFG for universities today?

Remmert: If you take a look around the universities and colleges in Germany today, you will quickly see that many research areas would be chronically underfunded without DFG funding (an overview is provided by the DFG funding atlas foerderatlas2018/Index). This applies not only to the funding of individual or collaborative research projects, but also to the establishment of structured support for young researchers (for example, in the form of post graduate programme). As much as the successful acquisition of funding from the DFG (or other third party funding bodies) is gratifying, it costs the applicants a lot of time, although the acquired funding is always limited in time and justified criticism can be made on the application and review processes. In view of the gaps in the basic funding of universities and colleges, however, I believe that funding from the DFG and comparable funding institutions is currently indispensable.

Uwe Blass (Interview on 01.09.2020)


Prof. Dr. Volker Remmert studied History and Mathematics in Freiburg, Zurich and Karlsruhe. He habilitated in Modern and Contemporary History as well as in the History of Mathematics and Natural Sciences. Since 2011, he has been Professor of History of Science and Technology at the University of Wuppertal. He also heads the Interdisciplinary Center for Science and Technology Studies at the same university.

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