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Science

East German scientists faced opportunities and disappointment during reunification

As in other fields, East German science struggled to find its place in a unified Germany. For some it was easier than others, as older faculty were often forced out, and younger faculty found opportunities in the West.

The Leibniz Institute for Plant Biochemistry was one of East Germany's premiere scientific laboratories

The Leibniz Institute for Plant Biochemistry was one of East Germany's premiere scientific laboratories

While the rest of the country was trying to figure how to integrate two governments, two currencies and two of nearly everything else, the sciences were no different.

After unification, the West German government advisory body, the Council of Science and Humanities was tasked with evaluating East German research facilities, according to Karl Ulrich Mayer, a West German sociologist at Yale University in the United States.

"A whole number of institutes were closed down," he said in an interview with Deutsche Welle, nearly two decades after the official reunification date of October 3, 1990.

"[Mainly] because it was assumed that they were too much of the Party line," he added.

Mayer is now also president of the Leibniz Association, which comprises of 86 research institutions across Germany, including many in the former East Germany, like the Leibniz Institute for Plant Biochemistry outside of Leipzig. He added that the hard sciences too, were not immune to cuts and layoffs.

" In Jena there was a big Academy of Science Institutes in the area of penicillin research, that was reduced to about 550 people from 1,000," said Mayer, "and these 550 people were then distributed among two Leibniz Institutes and a few university institutes."

While some East German institutes were absorbed into existing West German facilities, the Max Planck Society refused to do this, which gave them the opportunity to found new research institutes.

In 1964, this was the office of the famed East German biochemist Karl Mothes, the IPB's first director

In 1964, this was the office of the famed East German biochemist Karl Mothes, the IPB's first director

Publication restrictions for East German research

The German Democratic Republic, or GDR as it was known in English, focused on other hard sciences, including chemistry, biotechnology and nuclear science. The GDR received reactor technology from the Soviet Union.

While research studies from the hard sciences had the chance to be published in Western journals, it was much tougher for the social sciences and humanities, according to Dieter Hoffman, a fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin.

Before the wall came down, Hoffmann worked at the East German Academy of Sciences in the Institute for Theory and the History of Science.

" It was not possible for me for instance, to publish in Western journals," said Hoffmann, "and also I could not go to West to visit colleagues or conferences and to present there my scientific research."

Many people who worked at the IPB during the East German period lost their jobs or were forced to retire

Many people who worked at the IPB during the East German period lost their jobs or were forced to retire

Scientists who didn't toe the party line, or who were suspected of criticizing the regime quickly found their work censored or not published at all. Still, there were some instances that proved to be beneficial for young scientists under the GDR.

Hildegard Maria Nickel worked as a sociologist at the Academy of Educational Sciences in East Germany. She says now that she would never have had the opportunity to become a professor if she hadn't grown up in East Germany because of her background.

Born to working class parents, Nickel's father was a migrant and she was one of eight children. In the GDR, women were given the same opportunities as men to work and study. Despite such advances, Nickel found herself increasingly disillusioned with a system that censored findings it didn't want to hear.

"I think we did really good research on the youth in GDR and we could see how they feel in the end of the 70s, 80s, that they want to leave the GDR," said Nickel, "but nobody wanted to know it and we couldn't publish it."

Before the wall came down, Dieter Hoffmann worked at the East German Academy of Sciences in the Institute for Theory and the History of Science.

Before the wall came down, Dieter Hoffmann worked at the East German Academy of Sciences in the Institute for Theory and the History of Science.

Unification brought new opportunities

When the wall came down, Nickel and Hoffmann were able to find jobs in a unified Germany, easily travel and freely publish. But many older faculty, found themselves demoted or pushed out.

" Some people went to an early retirement. Some people could start a new scientific career or continue their career in a new location or institute and some people became unemployed," said Hoffman.

One of the prime examples of scientists finding a new career under a unified Germany was, of course Angela Merkel, Germany's current chancellor. Before she entered politics, Merkel studied, worked and eventually earned her doctorate in quantum chemistry in East Berlin.

While integrating East and West German science research centres was a difficult process for many, Hoffmann added that in a unified Germany today there are plenty of exciting areas of research.

After all, he observed, the city of Jena is a world leader in optics and home to companies like Carl Zeiss, Schott and Jenoptik. Dresden specializes in material sciences, and Freiberg in Saxony is known for solar power manufacturing.

" I think what you find now on the landscape [is] very often amazing," he said. "For instance here in Berlin, this institute for Laser Physics - Max-Born Institute - that's one of the worldwide leading institutes in this field."

Author: Cinnamon Nippard
Editor: Cyrus Farivar

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