Richard Ernst

Academic Opportunities for Conceiving and Shaping our Future


Abstract

It seems self-evident that scientists are supposed to concentrate their activities on science. Scientific progress is the main goal. The contents of scientific journals and the programs of scientific conferences, including the Lindau Meeting, reflect the love of researchers for studying the foundations of science and for exploring detailed experimental facts. As always, research is intimately connected to teaching. Learning by doing is still the best educational principle, also for young prospective scientists. Indeed, research and teaching are the primary academic obligations.

But the public might expect more from academic institutions than just research and the education of researchers. They are granted, to a large extent autonomy, they are relieved from direct political and commercial responsibilities, and they are free to define their own goals – but, after all, for the sake of society. And this might include also playing a critical role as an external observer of current trends in society and of dangers that could arise. A critical observer might be tempted to conceive alternative models for a future development in peace and prosperity. And he is obliged to communicate the results of his reflections to those who are in charge of political and economic decision taking.

Certainly, some conclusions of a critical observer might suggest innovative scientific solutions, leading to new avenues of the consumer society, or emphasizing the need for additional in-depth scientific studies. But more often, the remedies to be taken, in order to correct for some of the all too obvious follies of our society, are on a purely political and behavioral level. They require information, warnings, and particularly education on all societal levels. Often, the (sometimes frightening) scientific facts are known already since decades.

In this respect, a wide field of academic responsibilities is becoming apparent. First of all, at universities, future generations of decision makers, public servants, and industrial leaders are educated. It is likely that their future behavior can be beneficially influenced during their studies. In addition, providing opportunities for life-long learning belongs more and more to the core obligations of universities. In several countries, also academic courses for national parliamentary members are being offered, a unique chance for directly influencing politics by scientific facts and by an ethical spirit. - Many further possibilities of beneficial academic actions are conceivable, they just have to be implemented.


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