With out Angela Merkel’s scientific strategy, politics will grow to be poorer

The outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel has stood out among politicians for her commitment to science and evidence.Photo credit: Maciej Luczniewski / NurPhoto / Getty

Chancellor Angela Merkel, theoretical quantum chemist from the former GDR, will step down after the federal elections on September 26th. 16 years in office and a 30-year political career come to an end.

Merkel leaves a strong legacy for research and evidence-based thinking. Its administration has strengthened and internationalized German science over the years. Every government is imperfect when it comes to protecting people’s rights, promoting security and welfare, and delivering justice, but Merkel brought compassion and an insistence, unusual even in times of COVID-19 among politicians, that Decision making is beneficial from evidence. All of this will make it difficult for her to follow.

Merkel’s passion for science is fueled, among other things, by her understanding of the value of scientific research and innovation for societies and economies. In interviews with Nature, Germany’s researchers spoke about the fact that Merkel, as Chancellor, prioritized regular meetings with working scientists and research managers. Every few months she led informal science evenings with different focuses. She set the agenda for the sessions, with a particular interest in emerging areas such as hydrogen technology, quantum computing and artificial intelligence.

Researchers were advised to prepare carefully for their presentations at these meetings as Merkel would be ready to answer questions at the expert level. These “innovation” talks, as they came to be known, became the nucleus for initiatives such as a 2 billion ($ 2.4 billion) program in quantum computing and related technologies.

But Merkel was also committed to curiosity-driven research. Speaking to the Royal Society in London in 2010, she urged her audience to be skeptical of politicians who claim to be able to predict the course of scientific discoveries.

It’s easy to forget that reunified Germany was only 15 years old when Merkel became Chancellor in 2005. Two nations – and their science systems – were slowly relearning how to function as a unit. Science in the Communist East was organized in disciplinary research centers that were affiliated to the centralized Academy of Sciences of the German Democratic Republic. In contrast, West German science was organized by publicly funded research institutes and universities. It was also hierarchical and male dominated – an area where Germany still lags behind most of the European Union countries and needs to keep improving.

Science in Germany today is more collaborative, more cosmopolitan and comparatively less hierarchical. According to Eurostat data, however, only 33% of German researchers in 2018 were women. This compares to the EU average of 42%. About a fifth of Germany’s top research leaders are women, which is more than double the share in 2005 and approaches the EU average of 26%.

Merkel’s government has increased research and university budgets by 3 to 5% every year since 2006. The federal government’s annual expenditure on science now amounts to 24 billion, thus exceeding the EU target, according to which the member states should spend 3% of their gross domestic product on research and development.

Merkel received her doctorate in quantum chemistry in 1986 at the Academy of Sciences in Berlin-Adlershof in East Germany. She worked in the Prague laboratory of the quantum chemist Rudolf ZahradnÍk, studied the quantum mechanics of gas-particle collisions and was the co-author of several publications (e.g. BA Merkel et al. J. Am. Chem. Soc. 110, 8355- 8359 (1988) ; Z. Havlas et al., Chem. Phys. 127, 53-63; 1988). “With the data and computational tools available to researchers in the 1980s, she pushed the limits of accuracy,” says Alán Aspuru-Guzik, quantum chemist at the University of Toronto in Canada. “Merkel’s research was state of the art for the time.”

Federal Minister Merkel holds up a test tube filled with water, January 1995.

Angela Merkel, pictured in 1995 when she was Federal Minister for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety.Photo credit: Ulrich Baumgarten / Getty

Although Merkel was closely associated with the world of research, there is a crucial policy area where her decisions have not always been backed up by science. When it comes to phasing out fossil fuels, Germany is not leading the way. In the past, Merkel was even irritated by warnings from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change about dangerous climate change. And she is sticking to the construction of the controversial German gas pipeline Nord Stream 2 from Russia, which was only completed last week.

In addition, Merkel’s decision to phase out nuclear power in Germany by 2022 immediately after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011 made decarbonization even more difficult. In April, the Federal Constitutional Court asked the federal government to explain how it intends to achieve its climate goals of reducing emissions by 88% by 2040 and becoming greenhouse gas neutral by 2045.

The pandemic brought further challenges to reconcile science and politics. In March 2020, Merkel introduced lockdowns on the basis of expert advice to bring the spread of COVID-19 under control. But Germany experienced further waves in line with other countries. Merkel advocated a speedy return to strict restrictions – as recommended by scientists – but the leaders of many powerful state governments opposed this. When Nature went to press, Germany had around 4 million infections and more than 93,000 people had died in the country.

Germany will undoubtedly change after Merkel’s departure. Many voters are concerned about climate change – especially after the deadly floods in July in western Germany – and the slow decarbonisation of the government. Opinion polls predict the Greens will do well enough in the elections to enter a coalition government.

The German electoral system makes it difficult to predict top candidates for the post of Chancellor, but the legacy of the outgoing German scholar is assured.

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