Investing in the Future – Interview with the Chair of the Supervisory Board Dr Herbert Zeisel
"The HZG takes on an important role in not only monitoring this living environment and its changes but also in developing concepts for its future use and development." Photo: HZG/ Jan-Rasmus Lippels
Mr Zeisel, the slogan of our annual meeting this year was “For our life and habitat of tomorrow”. What does this phrase mean to you in connection to the HZG?
The motto very clearly expresses the close connection between us and our surroundings and what interactions and dependencies exist in both directions — even if we‘re not always immediately aware of them. Our wellbeing as individuals is frequently portrayed as existing in conflict with environmental protection. The fi eld of coastal studies as a research focus at the HZG, however, is an example of a holistic approach. The coastal regions will continue to be the most vital living environment in the world for human beings. The expected population growth by the year 2050 is expected to reach nine billion and the increase will only intensify this trend. The HZG takes on an important role in not only monitoring these living environments and their changes but also in developing concepts for future use and development. The strength of the HZG thereby certainly lies in the systemic consideration of this research topic.
We want to be prepared for the future with our new buildings. You said this money was well spent when speaking at the topping-out ceremony for the Coastal Competence Center in May 2015. Why?
In order to carry out top-notch research, particularly in scientific fields, we must provide a suitable working environment and the necessary infrastructure for excellent scientists on site that enables them to work and publish according to world-class standards. The federal government and the states have managed to pave the way in Geesthacht for an excellent infrastructure in the field of coastal research with the Coastal Competence Center (C3). By erecting modern laboratories and offi ces along with creating conference opportunities, the efficacy of research at the HZG increases and thereby the visibility of the centre as a whole. The C3 thereby contributes to the profile of the HZG and makes Geesthacht an attractive venue for scientists from all over the world in the field of marine and coastal research.
In your view, what is the HZG‘s national and international standing?
As you know, the HZG is not one of the largest Helmholtz centres. It is, nevertheless, very well-respected both nationally and internationally and is perceived as such. The clear profile of the HZG with its two main fields of research, materials science as well as coastal research, certainly contributes to this reputation. In addition, the sciencebased performance indicators for research facilities such as the quantity and quality of publications, number of doctoral students, patents or international cooperation — to name but a few – speak clearly on our behalf. The HZG has been very successful especially in the highly competitive “external funding” market for years, both in Germany as well as in Europe. In many fi elds, it can also certainly compete with considerably larger research facilities. In doing so, the HZG has always succeeded in linking excellent basic research with applications and concrete societal uses — I can name GERICS here as an example. In addition, “output” in matters of upscaling and technology transfer to the industrially-relevant scale hits the mark, a field in which the HZG is very successful with test and pilot systems for new membrane technologies and works very closely with industry partners.
"The HZG has always succeeded in linking excellent basic research with applications and concrete societal uses." Photo: HZG/ Jan-Rasmus Lippels
Where do you see the Helmholtz-Zentrum Geesthacht in ten – and twenty years?
It is always dangerous to rest on one’s laurels from the past and to concentrate too heavily on the status quo. Science is always continuing to develop. This applies to both gaining knowledge as well as the manner in which science is carried out.
Based on the recommendations of the Scientific Council, a process for further developing the HGF, which also comprises the research area of “key technologies”, is currently taking place. The trend toward science digitalisation will play a vital role in this process and how we want to deal with information technologies and “big data” at the HGF. This also affects, of course, the future of materials research. In addition to the individual challenge facing each scientist and his or her field of study, a challenge also exists for the research location. How can we tune in to current trends as early as possible and possibly take them further — for example, in anticipating the biologisation of the industry and then react strategically?
The development of novel technologies, the changing requirement profi les for emerging scientists or changing societal needs must lead again and again to the adaptation and reorientation of the research strategy, without giving up the core competences and the profile of the HZG. Therefore, methods such as the “foresight process”, which the HZG undertook in the field of materials research, are vital. I am convinced that the HZG with its competences will continue to play an important role in the scientific landscape of Germany and Europe, even if there are other issues in ten or twenty years and other scientific methods than today.
The “Clockwork Ocean Expedition” took place this year. In addition to the astounding scientific insights, the expedition was a media success. The expedition generated 154 million media contacts. How important is the public for science?
Public relations work today is very important to science’s social impact. Science itself has a duty to communicate its research results as well as its societal utility to the public. This is especially the case if the research is largely financed by the public. This communication is thereby not to exist as a one-way street: the critical discourse between science and the broader public is important too. And scientists are, after all, members of the society. I’m delighted that the Expedition Clockwork Ocean was a great success – not only because of the scientific results – and it was thanks to the outstanding work by the HZG Press Office that generated broad public interest in marine research.
Our employee publication In2science is a magazine that would like to introduce the people behind the science. Is there something that you would like to share with the centre’s staff?
Good research – especially in the large HZG research focus areas – needs good infrastructure. Without the necessary laboratories and instruments it’s impossible. But decisive in the success of a research establishment are, in the end, the staff with their knowledge, experience and enthusiasm for the topics in which they work.
I can only say: Stay curious, stay creative and pursue your ideas! Then I’m certain that excellent research will also be undertaken in the future at the HZG. In this sense, I offer my heartfelt thanks to all staff at the HZG for their dedication and commitment in the service of science.
Many thanks for answering our questions.
Published in2science #3 (January 2017)