Speech by Minister of State Michelle Müntefering at the Humboldt Colloquium “Bonds of Trust – Shaping the Sino-German Research Network of the Future” in Beijing

24.10.2019 - Speech

This Sino-German conference is a form of academic exchange – and through it you are not only engaging in discussion but also directly grappling with the power of human creativity and intellectual freedom.

What better environment for this to take place than the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation?

I would like to express my thanks, especially to you, Professor Pape, for inviting me to this event.

The Alexander von Humboldt Foundation is one of the key communicators of our international cultural policy, and I myself have also gained and learned a great deal through its work.

Allow me to offer you my heartfelt personal thanks for this.

You have just said a few words about the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, and I, too, believe it is more than a loose alliance.

I would even go so far as to say that it is almost like one big family that is at home anywhere in the world.

That is what makes it so special – the Humboldt family is a family of kindred spirits. Not bound by a physical DNA, but a DNA of curiosity.

However, ladies and gentlemen, with the motto for your conference you pose one of the most difficult questions there is: How do we create trust?

Mr Pape has just said that a lot of research still needs to be undertaken on that subject.

I believe that if anyone can answer that question, it is the family members of the Humboldt Foundation.

One thing is clear: we need trust beyond borders.

Trust in international cooperation in order to find common solutions for the great challenges of the future that affect us all: climate change, a responsible approach to protect natural resources, the fight against pandemics – in short, for a sustainable, a good life.

This international cooperation also depends on trust in our partners.

Trust that they share and respect our fundamental values, for example, on the important issue of human rights, or on freedom of expression and of the press. This is for us the most important value for togetherness of society and human beings.

After all, international academic and research networks create spaces for more profound expert exchange.

They encourage new discussions and broader perspectives, thereby fostering peaceful co-existence and mutual understanding in the long term. That is how they build trust. And: That is precisely why international academic cooperation is so important for us at the Federal Foreign Office.

Our support of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation clearly reflects this. But: trust is not a matter of international cooperation. In every country it creates bounds. It also creates bonds between academics and decision-makers in politics, business and society.

Science provides fact-based insights on which decisions can be founded.

Science is therefore an important basis for cohesion within society.

This perception is so much important at a time when all kinds of certainties are being called into question and coming under pressure.

When academic findings are reduced to the status of mere expressions of opinion, the relevance of academia for our society is no longer recognised or accepted.

When so-called fake news and alternative facts are on the rise, when anyone can claim anything while flying in the face of evidence, the result is a massive loss of trust, disorientation and a growing rift in society.

This is not what we want.

The trust that binds academia and society therefore needs to play an even more important role.

In their Beijing Declaration of September 2019, the German Academy of Sciences Leopoldina and the Chinese Academy of Sciences highlighted the important interaction and mutual trust that exists between science and our societies.

It states that “science does not stand outside society but is an integral part of it.

Therefore, the natural sciences should join forces with the social sciences and the humanities in order to ensure that its developments are for the benefit of society.”

Stakeholders in science and society need to be convinced of their desire to mutually benefit one another.

And they need to assume responsibility for one another.

That applies to issues concerning freedom or ethics, for example.

We are therefore not talking about a blind trust that scientific progress will be able to resolve all problems.

Rather, what counts is the awareness and consciousness of the reciprocal importance of science and society.

What counts is the openness for critical questions. Societies can live with that. And, I am sure, can live by that. We all need a critical approach when it comes to giving answers to such challenges: AI, robotic, genetic research.

Because: in a world of knowledge and possibility it is us to decide in what kind of world we want to live in.

Ladies and gentlemen,
Trust in the spirit of international cooperation. Trust in science. Trust between science and society.

One thing is vital for all three levels: the freedom of science and research.

Only through the freedom of science and responsibility in dealing with its findings can the trust of society in science be established.

And only in this way can we confront the more than urgent issues of our times.

In this area in particular I see not only a huge societal responsibility but also great potential for increased cooperation with China. In the spirit of innovation and longing for progress, scientist also need to resume responsibility, because this must be part of the privilege of knowledge, as freedom and responsibility go hand in hand.

Ladies and gentlemen,
How we treat our planet, how we make use of the opportunities offered by the digital transformation – and how we can ensure that people can enjoy a good quality of life regardless of where they live – the HOW is the question on which culture focuses.

Politics is not only a system of the state, but also the interconnection between people.

In a world like this, we can no longer separate the external and the internal – the small and the large, municipal and foreign policy – it is all interconnected.

Henry Kissinger once said in connection with the Chinese nation that its people had mastered the art of understanding things that which are fluent.

Today we are living in fluent times.

Alexander von Humboldt maintained that “Everything is interaction.” This year we celebrate the 250th birthday of this great researcher and explorer.

He was not only able to focus on the smaller elements of nature, on blossoms, plants and stones, but also had the big picture in mind, the environment and the people.

Not only did he have considerable knowledge, he always stressed humankind’s responsibility for our planet.

He was in the best sense “prudent and far-sighted”, as a Chinese proverb says.

His thirst for knowledge, his longing to acquire new insights inspired him during his second major journey to venture far beyond the agreed paths of the Russia expedition leads to the Chinese border.

Sadly, he personally did not have the opportunity to forge real academic ties with China in the end.

Perhaps Zhen He, too, who in 1416 reached the eastern coast of Africa in the course of his sea voyages, was familiar with that untamed spirit of discovery.
So let us research and debate together – so that in 250 years more at the latest it can be said that the researchers of this period helped make the planet a better place.

Thank you very much. I wish you all a successful conference!


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