Friday, August 08, 2008

Women Scientists as World Leaders: Angela Merkel

A commenter on my Margaret Thatcher post points out that German Chancellor Angela Merkel is also a scientist.

Merkel was educated in Templin and at the University of Leipzig, where she studied physics from 1973 to 1978. Merkel worked and studied at the Central Institute for Physical Chemistry of the Academy of Sciences in Berlin-Adlershof from 1978 to 1990. [...] After being awarded a doctorate (Dr. rer. nat.) based on a doctoral thesis on quantum chemistry she worked in research [at a scientific academy in East Berlin].
Unlike many of the women scientists I've profiled here, it wasn't her life-long dream to become a scientist. As The Independent reported in 2005:
Science, however, had been a purely pragmatic choice; merely a vehicle to keep her nose out of Communist politics. "I would have loved to have become a teacher," Merkel has admitted. "But not under that political system. Physics was harmless and uncontroversial." Her move into politics came late, in 1989. But Merkel positioned herself well, and it was a rapid rise to the top.
While some might quibble at the characterization of physics as "uncontroversial", she does seem like a good example of someone whose decision as to whether to pursue a career in science was based on external social factors rather than based on purely innate preferences.

In 2006 she wrote an editorial for the journal Science about German science policy.
German science and research have a long and proud tradition that we must cultivate and build on. We want to offer German science and research conditions that rival the best in the world. Our benchmarks are excellence, internationality, and freedom. With our new 6-billion-Euro program to fund innovative beacon projects, we are investing more than ever before in top-flight science and research. The conceptual framework for this will be provided by a comprehensive high-tech strategy action plan. Our efforts to promote higher education and research institutions are geared to encouraging healthy competition. With our Excellence Initiative, Joint Initiative for Research and Innovation, and Pact for the Universities, we want to strengthen institutions and academics that are particularly outstanding and creative and also network successfully. By 2010, we aim to increase spending on R&D to 3% of gross domestic product. Science and research will be one of the priorities of Germany's European Union (EU) presidency.
I'm not sure what that means in practical terms. My impression is that she is more focused on applied, rather than basic research, but my knowledge of German politics is basically nil, so that may be way off base.

At least one prominent German scientist, Christiane Nüsslein-Volhard believes that having a scientist as Chancellor is a a good thing.

Q. Your country is being led by a Ph.D. physicist. Do you think Chancellor Angela Merkel's election has improved the status of German women in science?

A. It might be of influence. I am happy that she is there because she understands science outside of ideology. In the Green Party and among some in the Socialist Party, there are people who are anti-science. They are against genetically modified foods and atomic energy. She sees through it, and maybe this will help.

It remains unclear whether her chancellorship boosts women in science or not. Germany has a particularly low proportion of women scientists compared to most other countries in the EU, particularly in more senior positions (see She Figures 2006, pp.25, 28, 58), so there is certainly room for improvement.

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Anonymous said...

You are right in your asessment. German science funding policy is very much focused on applied science.

Unfortunately Angela Merkel has not done anything special to further the cause of women in science, or women in general. Indeed she specifically does not consider herself a feminist and helped a law that made it very difficult to have affirmative action programs at universities.

You can see, I am quite disapointed in her, but then she is a member of the conservative party. One I would have characterised much more as anti-technology and science than the green party (my own affiliation ;))

Anonymous said...

"Angela Merkel has not done anything special to further the cause of women in science, or women in general."

No, not "anything special." But by choosing Ursula von der Leyen as a minister, who boosts day care, she certainly contributes a lot to changing "normality" in Germany.