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Debate

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When scientists speak out

Today´s scientists are in the public eye more than ever before. They are asked to deliver information about the latest research and perspectives as early as possible –during the pandemic, on the consequences of climate change, about how to handle political extremism and international conflicts. They are also expected, not least by politicians, to provide guidance in a society that is becoming increasingly polarised.

The not always smooth confrontation between the public and science has led to extensive discussions: What are science’s own claims, tasks and deficits? Should scientists rather just provide information or also advise and recommend? How should they communicate the methods, processes and limits of their own knowledge in public discourse? Here are the views and judgements of some scientists at Goethe University Frankfurt.

Sandra Ciesek

Her style of communication: scientifically sound, but also informative and trenchant

Which term captures best how virologist Sandra Ciesek must have experienced science communication during the pandemic? Crash course? Crisis management? Presumably a bit of both. At the beginning of 2020, Sandra Ciesek was the first virologist to examine people arriving in Germany from Wuhan who were infected with SARS-CoV-2. A short time later, she was one of the most sought-after COVID-19 experts, hosting, for example, the NDR podcast “Coronavirus Update” with her colleague Christian Drosten, which won multiple awards. At that time, the need for virological know-how was growing day by day. As a physician, Sandra Ciesek profits from her many years’ experience in communicating with patients “at eye level”.

Even though she rejected “80 to 90 percent” of the media enquiries at that time, she soon felt the urge (together with the press officer of University Hospital Frankfurt, whose professional support she gratefully mentions) to be clear about the following: How do I actually communicate and what is my objective? How and with what content do I want to appear in public? Should I continue? Because even she, to whom self-promotion and the need for recognition are alien, was meanwhile experiencing shitstorms in the heated social debate about vaccination and lockdown.

Sandra Ciesek decided to inform her audience in a factual and scientifically sound way, but at the same time trenchantly, carefully weighing things up and with caution as far as recommendations for political measures were concerned, not dramatic and never speculative. When it comes to important sociopolitical questions in science communication, for her the following applies: there is a need for doubly cautious wording. In relation to journalistic formats, this means no chat shows. She does, however, speak up when she has the impression that individual opinions are distorting standpoints shared by most of the medical profession.

What does her dedication mean for her standing in her own research field? Ciesek answers like a shot: “Nothing”. On the contrary, anyone open to science communication loses time and runs the risk of neglecting their research – which is what counts most in the scientific community. That is why she makes a point of publishing her work frequently and continuously. Ciesek only took up her post as professor of virology at Goethe University Frankfurt shortly before the outbreak of the pandemic. At that time, she was just setting up her research team, and many new staff had to be trained and supervised – a task that she naturally intended to pursue.

Why did she nevertheless take the step into the public eye? Because she wanted to help and give people guidance. Would she do it again? Sandra Ciesek hesitates. “It’s still too early to decide that.” But she is already grateful for all the encounters and situations she has experienced because of her commitment – for example taking away a person’s doubts about inoculation. “I will have a lot to tell my grandchildren about that,” says Sandra Ciesek several times during our interview.

Sandra Ciesek is Director of the Institute of Medical Virology at University Hospital Frankfurt and professor of medical virology at Goethe University Frankfurt. In 2021, she was acknowledged, together with Professor Christian Drosten from Charité, as “University Teacher of the Year” and received the Hessian Culture Prize “for her services during the coronavirus pandemic”.

Volker Wieland

Getting involved in the opinion-forming process

Volker Wieland would like to make one thing clear: not every scientist needs feel required to take a public stand. A scientist’s task is basic research. Period. Science communication done properly – “that tends to be something for just a few people.” On the one hand. On the other hand, he says, people need public intellectuals – individuals whose expertise contributes to shaping public opinion. But the decision to do so has its consequences: investing time, being available at short notice for media inquiries, formulating knowledge in a catchy and quotable way, classifying and explaining it – and also taking a stand. At the same time, he says, you have to guard against using words that are too simple. Something he didn’t like about the debates during the coronavirus pandemic: the expectation that science should offer solutions for societal problems. Politics, he says, has other decision-making criteria.

That he himself showed up on the journalists’ radar occurred rather by chance – he had worked for a time as a scientific adviser at the European Central Bank during the financial crisis in 2007/8. He cannot not rule out the possibility, he says, that his high profile in the media put him in the running for the German Council of Economic Experts, which advises the Federal Government. Volker Wieland was a member of the council for nine years, one of the “Five Sages”, as the council’s scientists are called. Wieland enjoyed the council’s autonomy, which, unlike committees commissioned by ministries, is allowed to publish its findings independently. If it had been down to him, the council would have made use of this possibility far more often – for example to give more publicity to individual aspects of the annual report, such as the economic consequences of climate interventions. His experience as an adviser prompted his idea for a special form of science communication: scientists could be “loaned” to ministries, not just for a short time but instead for several years, and contribute their specialist expertise to political processes.

Upon leaving the Council of Economic Experts, Volker Wieland announced that he would continue to speak out. This not only has to do with the fact that as a monetary and financial economist he conducts policy-relevant research. Or with the fact that, as director of the Institute for Monetary and Financial Stability (IMFS), public relations are part of his job description anyway. In a democracy, he says, decision-making processes are also driven by public opinion. “And I want to contribute to that opinion-forming process.”

Volker Wieland is Professor for Monetary Economics at the Faculty of Economics and Business and Executive Director of the Institute for Monetary and Financial Stability (IMFS).

Andreas Hackenthal

“A rewarding topic”

His topic is an evergreen in the media. How do we handle money? Where does our behaviour deviate from the fundamental rules of financial market research? Why do we do this? And what is the role of the financial sector and of regulation?

If economist Andreas Hackethal, who specialises in personal finance and empirical banking, is asked about current topics such as inflation or cryptocurrency on top, his appointments with the media soon add up. Last year, he was consulted over 70 times. “Personal finance is a rewarding topic,” admits Hackethal, who comments on phenomena and developments in financial markets on the basis of his research findings, which rest on empirical data. All the more so since a media presence has a “synergistic” effect on other activities as well: his research relies on (anonymised) customer data from financial service providers, making it advantageous to be considered among cooperation partners in the banks as a competent and credible research partner thanks also to media expertise. But the presence of his research in the media is also reflected in teaching: “When students see what practical relevance research has, how relevant research is in the first place, they listen even more closely.”

Nevertheless, Hackethal also speaks of a balancing act with regard to communicating with representatives of the press: the transition from an academic appraisal of products and investor behaviour to application-oriented financial advice is sometimes fluid, he says. He also refuses to evaluate key financial indicators or the strategies of individual providers in public; he leaves this to analysts. What is also important, he says, is to rule out conflicts of interest and to hold up a mirror to the banking sector when his team’s research results expose malpractices in the advice given to small investors. Do some bankers offer women more expensive financial products than men? These results belong in the public domain and in the professional world. After all, it is a matter of verifiable scientific standards: of his research and teaching, of the Leibniz Institute for Financial Research (SAFE) and of Goethe University Frankfurt.

Andreas Hackethal is Professor of Finance.

Susanne Schröter

Everyone should have an opinion

“Every statement that lasts longer than 90 seconds is irrelevant”, “every contribution under 13 hours is unscientific”: Susanne Schröter, anthropologist and Islamic studies researcher, recalls a debate between media representatives and colleagues in the field which ended in a “disastrous” argument about how scientists should speak out in public. Distorted to the extreme, the debate however describes very well the poles between which science communication oscillates, she says. “Not everyone can deal with their own statements being abridged in the media. You have to put up with the fact that sometimes half the interview is taken out of context.”

As Professor for Anthropology of Colonial and Postcolonial Orders, Schröter is involved in topics – the Islamic world, fundamentalism, Islamic headscarf, liberal Islam – where her expertise is often in demand, but also controversially debated. Especially since she founded the “Frankfurt Research Centre on Global Islam” in 2014, she can hardly cope with all the enquiries from the public sphere, as Schröter reports – not only from media representatives, but also from social workers, teachers, politicians and civil society organisations.

2014 was the time when young Germans also went to Syria and Iraq to wage jihad. Schröter spent three years conducting research in mosque communities, and her expertise regarding a world that is unknown and closed to many is in high demand. But she also became involved in prevention work aimed at keeping young people away from the Islamic State. “At the latest during this time, I realised that it’s my duty to keep people informed.” And also to take a stand. In general, Schröter, who was active in the environmental movement as a teenager, believes “that everyone should have an opinion about different things.” Even if, as Susanne Schröter admits, she has to pay a price for it. She sometimes comes under fire on the internet and is under police protection. In 2019, for example, her conference on the Islamic headscarf caused a commotion throughout Germany. Campaigners on the internet attempted to prevent the conference, to which representatives with different views had been invited. She tried not to let it make an impression on her, she says, and hoped “that the police were on the alert”.

Has her public presence influenced her scientific work? Yes, she says delightedly. “My way of publishing has changed.” As a tenured professor, she can afford to write books that are of public interest. Her specialist community is now very small, “so it’s nice to be read by a lot of people.” Is her overall conclusion then positive, is it worth the commitment? “You always hope to make a positive difference,” she says, but life is certainly more relaxed without appearing in public.

Susanne Schröter is Professor for Anthropology of Colonial and Postcolonial Orders.

Sabine Andresen

Sticking to the findings that she wants to highlight

The situation of children and adolescents, child poverty, sexual abuse – many different views are voiced in the public debates on these socially explosive topics. That is why educational scientist Sabine Andresen pays particular attention to “what I as a scientist can say about an issue with good reasons” when the media ask her for her opinion. Presenting plausible reasons, “sticking to the findings that I want to highlight”, conveying her special scientific expertise – this was already her concern in her first interview, requested by “Der Spiegel” in 2007 following the publication of the book “Lob der Disziplin” (“In Praise of Discipline”) by Bernhard Bueb, headmaster of Salem boarding school. The public response to the interview prepared Andresen, a childhood and family researcher, for what she also sometimes experienced later on: the claim that only with practical experience and not as a scientist is it possible to talk about upbringing, children’s rights, participation of children and adolescents, or family life. Speaking out against an “unquestioned recognition of authority” in children’s upbringing, as Bueb demanded, triggered angry reactions among readers and listeners. That is why Sabine Andresen, as chairperson of the “Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse in Germany”, which she headed from its establishment in 2016 until 2021, coordinated her public statements very closely with the inquiry’s press officer. Not only because she wanted to do justice to the sensitive topic through careful wording and clear language. Andresen believes it is above all the individuals affected, whom she is studying in her work, that read her statements or listen to them. “My concern is how they will react to my words.”


The fact that there are meanwhile platforms for discussing such issues such as abuse and child poverty is important, she says. However, Sabine Andresen does not want to participate in heated controversies and the rapid polarisation of debates in daily news formats such as Twitter and Instagram. She is happy to explain her position in the context of longer broadcasting formats that offer time for a topic to unfold. During the pandemic, it was important to her to inform the public about the results of her studies on the precarious situation of children and young people. Inform, she says, not advise. She is also involved in policy advice, for example, since July 2022 as deputy chairperson of the expert commission for the Federal Government’s new report on children and young people. But that demands a lot of patience, she says, because even obvious problems such as child and youth poverty are being addressed “very hesitantly”.

When Sabine Andresen feels that she is repeating herself too often, that her expertise is no longer contributing anything new, she takes a step back now and again from science communication in the media. “Research and teaching, thinking about something in depth, for that you need to be alone.” This means that if you want to communicate something seriously, you have to be able to disappear temporarily from the public stage. Even at the risk of being forgotten.

Sabine Andresen is Professor of Educational Science with a focus on childhood and youth research. In 2020, she was awarded the Public Service Fellowship prize of the Alfons and Gertrud Kassel Foundation.

Uwe Volkmann

The positive effect of irritation

There are two reasons why Uwe Volkmann has been speaking out in public for over twenty years. In our interview, he describes the first reason as the fact that he himself has been dealing with a specific topic for some time and is convinced that his observations are of public interest – for example on the concept of race in Germany’s Basic Law or on the guarantee of human dignity. Volkmann, an expert on constitutional law who is also a legal philosopher, then expresses his thoughts in an extensive essay and offers it to one of the recognised, reputable newspapers. This happens about once a year.

Volkmann describes the second reason as the “positive effect of irritation”. This irritation then catapults him, he says, into an ongoing debate because he feels that the legal perspective is neglected in public discussion, because debates are one-sided, because arguments are lacking – such as in the refugee crisis, where Volkmann once produced three arguments in favour of an unlimited admission of refugees and three arguments against it. The reactions were not long in coming.

The latest positive effect of irritation for Volkmann was triggered during the coronavirus pandemic, where he was one of the few legal scholars in the country to deal critically with restrictions on civil liberties – the first time three days after lockdown came into force. For him, the discussion at the time was dominated too much by virological perspectives, while at the same time political measures were being adopted in rapid succession. What then motivates Volkmann is his desire for a nuanced debate.

That he was indeed fighting on different fronts with the articles he wrote during the pandemic and deliberately falling between two stools is evident from the fact that – depending on the article (civil liberties or compulsory vaccination) – he received the most emphatic approval and the vilest rejection from the same clientele. In this volatile atmosphere, Volkmann consciously used cautious wording for the first time, had each article proofread before it was published and answered media enquiries only very selectively. Nevertheless, he is convinced that science has a duty to share its knowledge. But if science, to cite Luhmann, also means “entering uncertain terrain”, then scientists must also make it clear: our knowledge is provisional. For this reason, Volkmann feels rather uncomfortable with collective campaigns such as petitions and open letters. “That is when collective pressure is exerted on the public in the name of science.” Instead, Volkmann makes the case for the freedom of argument in the “pluralist babble of voices” – to which he is always happy to add his own.

Uwe Volkmann is Professor of Public Law and Legal Philosophy.

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