Science and Responsibility: The Life Sciences of the Max Planck Society, 1948–2004

"Science and Responsibility" is the working title for a book project on the history of the life sciences in the Max Planck Society (MPG) between 1948 and 2002. The focus is on the agricultural sciences and molecular biology in the MPG and their different reactions to the social problems of their time. The contrasting development of these sciences in the MPG is described with a view to fundamental epistemic contradictions in the life sciences, power relations and social networks within the scientific organisation and different relationships to business and politics. It deals with fundamental decision-making situations in science and research that are of long-term significance for the relationship between humans and their environment and are the subject of geo-anthropology.

While world hunger and the increasingly visible environmental problems of the 1970s also demanded a response from science, the Max Planck Society (MPG) took a different path with the development of genetic engineering. If you want to trace this historical milestone in the development of the Max Planck Society and the life science institutes it maintains, you quickly come across a long history, at the centre of which is a series of agricultural and biological research institutes that the MPG inherited from its predecessor organisation, the Kaiser Wilhelm Society, and from the times of National Socialism when it was founded in 1948.

The almost thirty-year struggle for this institute complex reflected not only the emergence of molecular biology, but also the past political tensions within the scientific landscape of West Germany, the broad scientific mobilisation in the age of nuclear energy and the Cold War, the scientific and technological race of Western industrialised countries and the European integration of the Federal Republic of Germany. At stake was the question of whether the biological and life sciences should adopt a holistic or a more pragmatic perspective on life and to whom they should be beholden first and foremost: the state or business and industry? In this story, the agricultural sciences become a burning glass in which decisive decisions on scientific policy and socially relevant direction are revealed in one of the largest scientific and research organisations in Germany.

The book manuscript with the working title "Verantwortung und Wissenschaft. The Life Sciences in the MPG (1948-2000)" focuses on agriculture and molecular biology as examples of the contrasting development of the life sciences in the MPG between 1948 and 2002. It deals with fundamental contradictions in the life sciences and different cultures of cooperation with social, political and economic actors, as reflected in the organizational framework of the MPG. The study is based on the work of the research programme "History of the Max Planck Society (1948-2002)" (GMPG), which was able to draw on a comprehensive collection of MPG sources between 2014 and 2022.


Max Planck Society, Life Sciences, Agriculture, Molecular Biology, Twentieth Century, Past Policy, Basic vs Applied Research, Epistemic-social Networks, Processes of Clustering

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