Körber-Prize 2019

Freedom of Science, Responsibility, and Communication

Science follows the human need ›to want to know.‹ It can best satisfy this compulsion to acquire new knowl­edge when it is free: free from content-related guide­lines, free from restrictions, free from government requirements, and free from claims to its utilization. These are conditions under which it can flourish and transcend the limits of our knowledge. Article 5 of the Basic Law of the Federal ­Republic of Germany, whose seventieth anniversary is being celebrated in 2019, guar­antees not only freedom of expression (e.g., speech) and of the press but also the ­freedom of science: »Art and science, research and teaching are free,« according to the constitution. Other European countries also protect the freedom of art and science, as does the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.

This is the basis on which the research activities thrive that the Körber European Science Prize honors each year. Excellent individual scientists of both sexes are the recip­ients and will from now on be awarded a Prize money of one million euros for their promising research. This year the Körber-Stiftung has decided to increase the amount of the Prize money. It has furthermore added a condition that 5% of the Prize money is to be utilized for science communication. And there are good reasons for this.

The freedom of science is always closely linked to the respon­sibility of science. This fact becomes clear partic­ularly in a period in which science and technological-economic activity are moving closer and closer together. This can be observed in impressive manner in the rapid development of genome editing using CRISPR-Cas9 or in the advances made in artificial intelligence. Looming in both cases are ethical challenges and possible dangers or even the potential for misuse that make ethical reflection by science necessary. At issue is not a restriction of the freedom of science, but additional ways to enable the freedom of science to have an impact. 

Research organizations must disclose the ethical princi­ples on the basis of which scientists are given support in forming opin­ions and in decision mak­ing concern­ing research that could pose a danger to people or the environment in which they live. The Max Planck Society, for example, formulated its position on genome editing in a paper in May, 2019. There, it rejects among other things modification of the human germ line on the basis of our current state of knowl­edge. And at the EU level, experts are occupied with the issue of creating ethical guidelines for the development of trustworthy artificial intelligence.Regard­less of which technology is at issue, we can only develop solutions for the future jointly with all the social actors.

Freedom of science can thus not be unlimited. Other rights worthy of our protection may be conflict with ­the right to be free to conduct research. To this extent, the freedom of science must be renegotiated over and over again under changed conditions. This process of renegotiation requires a vital and open discourse. In this context, science communication takes on special importance. The funds awarded with the Körber European Science Prize should therefore be used wisely. As a main actor, science itself must defend the freedom of science in the democratic discourse. It has a major interest in the public not just listening to it but also trusting it. For this reason, science must make both its role and its ethical self-reflection visible in its

Prof. Dr. Martin Stratmann

President of the Max Planck Society
Chairman of the Trustee Committee of the Körber Prize