Science politics as a playground for party politics – On the new leadership of the German Ministry of Research

The grand coalition will cometo reality in Germany. We will see the (re-)instatement of a government that has a good chance of being more successful than its reputation suggests. Thus the usual fighting for political offices, which always precedes the formationof a new government,finds its end. Ministerial positions are all too often the result of political maneuvers, in which the importance of the various offices for the political design of the next four years takes a back seat versus their function as a political disposition for the parties’internal personnel planning.

This statement holds particularly this time for the post of leading the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). Here the contrast to the previous incumbent could not be greater. Johanna Wanka was a professor of mathematicalengineering, a former university principal and prior to her nomination as Federal Minister of Science held the same position in the state government of Brandenburg and Lower Saxony. Furthermore, she was President of the Conference of Ministers of Culture, thus a real professional in the scientific as well as political world. And now the highest post of science policy will be awarded to Anja Karliczek(also from the Christian Democrats), a trained hotel clerk who has never had anything to do with science or education at all (besides raising three kids). Researchers and education politicians rub their eyes in amazement. Mrs. Karliczek knows universities in the literal sense only from a distance: She completed a part-time degree in business administration at the Teleteaching University in Hagen. Just compare the topic of her diploma thesis (The tax advantage analysis for the outsourcing of pension obligations from the employer’s point of view – which seems so important to her that she explicitly lists it under „Personal“ on her candidacy website) with the one of Wanka (Spatial boundary value problems of potential theory with coupling conditions). Now titles of academic work are not always too meaningful, but in this case, one must wonder what qualifications for the office the new highest science politician brings to the table. Would she in return let a theoretical physicists or neurobiologist run her hotel?

Now, the importance of science and education policy for the future of our society, for itsintellectual and economic competitiveness, for our prosperity and not least for the assessment of possibly dangerous technological developments, such as new genetic editing methods, the development of a powerful artificial intelligence, nanotechnologies, big data surveillance algorithms, and many others cannot to be overestimated, as the author of this blog often emphasizes. It is crucial to have the transfer of scientific knowledge into technologies be not only subject to a capitalist exploitation logic, but to also shape it politically and legitimize it democratically. Angela Merkel, holding a doctorate degree in physics herself, has so far given the impression that she recognizes the importance of science policy. The nomination of Karliczek,however, raises some serious doubts about that. Even if we can assume that the appointment is primarily the result of intra-party boundary conditions, we should nevertheless look very closely at the significance that science policy will have in the next federal government. Angela Merkel’s initial statement on her new staff member gives little cause for hope: „I think,“ she said, „she [Anja Karliczek] will also have a big heart for science.“ The ignorance of a top political staff member in the domain she is about to politically lead cannot be better expressed.

Generally, the responsiveness of policymakers is far too slow to control and adequately steer the accelerating dynamics of technological change. This is largely due to the fact that our political leaders’ knowledge about the current state of scientific development is usually scarce. Unfortunately, the new leadership of the BMBF clearly proofs that point dramatically.

But the Social Democrats have to equally take some blame: While they emphatically played the education and science card during their election campaign, in the coalition negotiations they ultimately gave preference to other, in their eyes possibly more prestigious government posts. Using one of the most important political fields for societal development as a playground for short-term party or even personal career interests could prove fatal. In the future, one no longer needs to point to the US and Trump’s science policy, if one wants to find examples of how inappropriately political offices are being filled.

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