A little after one o’clock in the afternoon on April 22 in Frankfurt, Germany’s Bockenheimer Warte, a Cirque du Soleil performer juggled to an overly choreographed routine to Bloodhound Gang’s “Bad Touch.” For each exaggerated “You and me baby ain’t nothin’ but mammals,” the crowd’s collective cringe turned from acknowledgement to avoidance. In the middle of the act, one man raised his sign, “Pi is all the irrationality I need,” an accurate metaphor for all events unfolding.
The “March for Science,” to Germans, was almost entirely about rationality, not scientific investment or “the many ways that science serves our communities and our world” or any of the other twenty-odd reasons listed on the official “March for Science” webpages.
“In Germany, we have the Freedom of Science and Arts, it’s written in our constitution,” said Susanne Ficus, one of Frankfurt’s March for Science organizers, and a former biological technician herself. “Nobody can attack it.”
Since WWII, Germany has lumped together knowledge and democracy, for obvious reasons.
The Nazis burnt books and people and called the news fake—Lügenpresse—until government propaganda became the normal news.
“We Germans have learned our lessons in history,” Ficus continued. “We want to make sure that in the beginning we are defending our democracy.”
That’s probably why over 37,000 Germans in 22 different cities showed up to the “March for Science.” This is a country at the top of the list for most PhDs in the world. It’s a country in which education level often determines “status” over finances—if nobility still existed Germany’s king would likely be the smartest man rather than the richest man. And it’s a country that respects science so much that its current chancellor Angela Merkel was a physical chemist before she ventured into politics
Because of this democratic relationship with science, we decided to interview four German scientists and asked them to discuss the role of science in Germany, in a functioning democracy, and in relation to the United States.
Professor Dr. Birgitta Wolff, President of the Goethe University in Frankfurt
Following the German tradition of science and democracy, Dr. Wolff illustrates that society can’t function without the backing of science:
“Freedom is a value in itself. In science, freedom is furthermore functional: Research and teaching are, without science, inconceivable; communication and enlightenment are not possible. Without freedom, no science. Without science and education, there is no sustainable society.
Professor Dr. Joybrato Mukherjee, President of Justus-Liebig University Gießen and Vice President of the German Academic Exchange Service
Similar to Dr. Wolff, Dr. Mukherjee emphasizes the importance of scientific acknowledgement right now:
“Scientific insights can only be won in an open, free, and international discourse. In a globally connected science community applies: If in other countries, the freedom of science is threatened, then it’s also a concern in Germany. Especially now, in times of international crises and conflicts, science takes an important role as a link—beyond political interests and academic disciplines, nations, and cultures.”
Right now, as the distinction between facts and the interpretation of facts is getting lost, and, therefore, the core of science is threatened. It’s important that we protect science as a valuable asset.”
Dr. Brigitte Baumgart, Biologist, from the University of Aachen
Dr. Baumgart, a retired biologist from the University of Aachen, recalls her the never-ending disgruntlement between scientists and businessmen and questions whether the U.S. will remain among the leading research destinations in the world.
“Thirty years ago, America was the country to research freely. If you wanted to research, you went to the U.S., which is why the U.S. found so much scientific success. But when a businessman looks at science, he sees that science doesn’t produce anything tangible on a quarterly basis. So he’d rather eliminate it.”
Like many of the other professors, she calls on society to recognize the futuristic value of science and look beyond the current investments.
“Society has to be willing to afford science even though it doesn’t produce results immediately. It doesn’t fit within a business model or business plan because science is a long-term solution. To truly examine science, one should look at the entire cost analysis. The cost of research may begin at 1 million Euros, but it could save 1 billion Euros in ten or fifteen years. Science needs to be understood within this context rather than in immediacy.”
Susanne Ficus, lead organizer of Frankfurt am Main’s March for Science
“Donald Trump shutting down the impasse, shutting down climate research. It hits us all. There is only one Earth,” Susanne began impassionately.
Unlike the other scientists, Ficus emphasized the democratic damage from not only the Trump administration’s scientific policies but also within the context of the travel ban.
“The U.S. has really, really good universities—M.I.T., Stanford, Harvard—but even this travel ban is affecting German scientists at those universities. We have a lot of scientists whose parents were refugees during the Iranian revolution, for example. These doctors and scientists, they can’t go to the U.S. any longer. They are treated like terrorists. But for me, and I think 99.9% of the science community, they are Germans. The travel ban hits us all. It hits science.”
And, from an even more political standpoint, Ficus thinks this scientific denial will harm diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Germany.
“Our democracy has faced in the face of the U.S.. We feel a really, really close connection to the U.S.. But we are scientists. We are international. We need a normal civilization to wake up and see what’s going on and that we are still here and nobody can tell us something’s a cat when it’s a dog.”
Asked whether a brash, anti-science candidate could emerge in Germany. She thinks not, citing that although many Germans dislike Merkel because she’s so unresponsive, they appreciate and trust her decisions because it will be considered methodically and unbiased.
“You know she is a scientist.”
Tom Burson is a travel writer, part-time hitchhiker, and he’s currently trying to imitate Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? but with more sunscreen and jorts.