Spiros Simitis

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Address to launch the Institute’s inaugural semester

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First event in the series “Critical analyses of international development cooperation”: a lecture by Klaus Töpfer entitled “Nachhaltige Entwicklung. Die Friedenspolitik der Gegenwart und der Zukunft”
28 April 2009


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Ladies and Gentlemen,

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I am gratified to see you here on this important day for which we have waited so long.

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At first sight it may appear that the University is merely replicating its initiative, dating back some years now, of establishing the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies (FIAS) in the field of the natural sciences. To preclude any misunderstanding, let me say at the outset that the new Institute for Advanced Studies is not simply a parallel institution to the FIAS. Each admittedly has its specific spheres of interest. However, it is equally clear that common areas for reflection exist, relating to issues of common concern that are particularly relevant today. I need only mention stem cell research, the implications of genetic control, or the growing role of predictive analyses in a social policy increasingly directed towards prevention.

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A second point must immediately be made: how opportune it is that the Institute has been established in connection and in cooperation with a Foundation that has for many years contributed, in a manner virtually unparalleled by any other institution, to a succession of advances in research in the human sciences – namely, the Werner Reimers Foundation.

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Yet for all the importance of these two aspects, there is a third consideration that casts a particularly significant light on today’s occasion: it is that the Institute marks a return by the University to its own tradition. Let me explain what I mean on the basis of two examples that are quite separate from each other in time.

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The first dates back to the 1920s. The decision to establish a chair of sociology in advance of virtually every other German university represented a choice of subject which, in terms of its entire structure and ambition, called the traditional boundaries between disciplines into question and at the same time paved the way for decidedly interdisciplinary collaboration. Indeed, Max Horkheimer then promptly and successfully championed the setting up of a chair of psychoanalysis associated with the Department of Sociology – its first incumbent was Karl Landauer – thus also creating the conditions for an ethos of interdisciplinary cooperation whose effects are still evident today.

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Much the same situation was successfully replicated in the mid-1970s when the foundations of a new understanding of children’s welfare were laid by Frankfurt lawyers, psychoanalysts and sociologists. Once again the boundaries between disciplines were deliberately broken down, and once again the choice fell upon an approach, which was subsequently expanded, that considered child development on an interdisciplinary basis in terms of the specific interests of children and was at the same time regarded as a binding guide on the levels of both theory and practice.

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Hence the Institute for Advanced Studies, while espousing Frankfurt’s tradition, places it on a much broader foundation that is in no way confined to specific disciplines. Interdisciplinarity is consequently the criterion and objective of all the Institute’s activities. The Institute purposely disregards seemingly “intrinsic” and therefore “indubitably” binding boundaries between individual disciplines, refuses to abide unquestioningly by a process of reflection dictated by their ideas, and regards interdisciplinary discourse as a permanent challenge not to accept without close scrutiny postulates formulated solely from the point of view of a single discipline.

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Put differently and more incisively, interdisciplinarity is a form of institutionalized restlessness, both critical and creative, which not only places a given human science back in its social context, but also in fact has the precise aim of seeking exchanges of views among disciplines that, I repeat, include the natural sciences and, as was strongly emphasized only a few days ago when the functions of France’s newly established Haut conseil des biotechnologies were laid down, work together with them to arrive at appropriate responses to vital issues such as those raised by the life sciences today.

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Interdisciplinarity can admittedly satisfy these requirements only in so far as it – if I may allude once again to the debate in France – consistently rejects the still widespread and indeed often predominant culture du résultat. The capacity of interdisciplinary approaches to stimulate and critically accompany reflection is incompatible with a cult of practical applicability, whatever its rationale, which, whether or not avowedly, determines the choice of the relevant issues and objectives. For this reason, the Institute for Advanced Studies, as a forum for discussion and research, categorically does not offer itself as a venue for projects that have reached the stage of promising measurable outcomes capable of practical implementation. The sole criterion is the prospect of confronting and continuing the discourse with new problems.

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The importance of precisely this approach is evident from the seemingly unambiguous but now increasingly questionable rationality of some of the internationally accepted methods of evaluation ¬¬– especially where the social sciences and the humanities are concerned – extending from the Shanghai University Ranking to the much vaunted Hirsch factor. Systematic “salami slicing” (that is, the conscious breaking down of individual research projects into smaller units and their no less deliberate placing in the “most respected” academic journals), as well as, in particular, the realization that a paper written in as polemical as possible a style is likely to attract a plethora of citations and hence to harvest a maximum number of points – all this illustrates and bears out one’s doubts clearly enough.

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Our current work programme has three components:

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Firstly, the Institute for Advanced Studies provides for the conduct of individual projects over what is normally a two-year period, involving the opportunity to work here and to engage in debate with colleagues, as well as to explore the validity of one’s premises and results with scholars specifically invited for the purpose. An example of this approach is the norms project, which deals with particular aspects of “The formation of normative orders” – a part of Frankfurt University’s Excellence Cluster in this field.

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Secondly, the Institute for Advanced Studies proposes to address some topical issues in up to four lectures, as a rule coupled with brief seminars, to analyse their critical components, and thereby at the same time to lay the foundations for future debates. Today’s lecture is the first part of a series that will focus on a development policy which has for a long time been characterized by a manifest disregard for historical, social and environment-specific factors. The next two lectures will focus on essential political and economic approaches and considerations, based principally on the experience of the World Bank. The series will end with a discussion with academics from Africa, Asia and Latin America.

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Lastly, the Institute intends to hold a series of one-off controversial debates to explore the background to and extent of some of today’s burning issues, such as the vociferous demands only recently expressed for limits to be set to the public discussion of the course and aims of research.

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Now, though, let us turn to today’s event and more precisely to our first guest.

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It would, I am sure, be not only superfluous but also inappropriate to introduce him with the usual biographical excursus. Instead, I should like to draw attention to one of his character traits which so impressed me from the beginning: his thoughtfulness.

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It was this that induced him, initially as a State Secretary and Minister in Rhineland-Palatinate and later as Federal Minister, to devote himself entirely to the protection of the environment as early as in the late 1970s – that is, at a time when political attitudes to environmental protection were thoroughly divided and when institutions such as the ministries specifically established for the purpose laboured under the weight of the barely concealed hope that they would soon fail, and that the failure would this time be final. It was his thoughtfulness that likewise caused him to declare himself prepared, at the end of the 1990s, to assume the anything but straightforward office of Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme, a post he held until 2006. It is his thoughtfulness that is reflected once again in his decision to head the newly established Potsdam-based Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies, whose research is concentrated not only on climate change but also, and in particular, on the sustainable economy.

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In a word, our work could not have had a more auspicious beginning than with our guest today. In expressing my gratitude to him for kindly and spontaneously agreeing to join us, I now have pleasure in inviting him to speak.

(FKH - 22.06.2009)