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Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker - A life for science

Still today, the windows of Prof. Dr. Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker’s former office at the Genzentrum in Munich are fortified with armored glass. In his career, the biochemist not only sought to unravel the mysteries of viruses, gene expression, and prion diseases, Winnacker also championed building bridges between science and society – an engagement that also put his life at risk. “The risk was worth it. Wherever we look, life has improved.”

Already in 1975, when Winnacker was an Assistant Professor in Cologne, the biochemist became involved in the dialogue between science and society. Winnacker, who turned 80 this July, had started his career at the ETH Zurich, where he earned a Ph.D. in 1968 for his part in an effort to chemically synthesize vitamin B12. In the 1970s, Winnacker had just returned to Germany from his postdocs in Berkeley and at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden. At the time, scientists were starting to manipulate DNA from various sources into combinations not known to exist naturally, and the potential risks to health and the environment were unclear. So scientists called for a moratorium on recombinant DNA experimentations, followed by a conference to assess the technology’s risks. Winnacker, then Assistant Professor at the University of Cologne, took part in this fundamental discussion, the International Congress on Recombinant DNA Molecules held in 1975.




“Already then, it became clear to me that a communication problem of modern science exists, especially of genetic engineering. As a young scientist, I noticed how hard the discussion with the public is.” - Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker



As an Assistant Professor, he didn’t yet yield much influence, Winnacker remembers. So when, in 1984 and as a full professor at the University of Munich, he received the invitation to join the “Enquetekommission des Bundestages zu Chancen und Risiken der Gentechnologie” – the German Bundestag’s Study Commission on Chances and Risks of Genetic Engineering – Winnacker didn’t hesitate. “This request, a few years later, didn’t surprise me. When the Bundestagspräsident calls you and asks you to participate, you have no choice, really. At the time, genetic engineering was still completely new, with only a few experts in the field. I think I was the only one in the commission who knew what a gene was – but that was the situation, back then.”  

Winnacker’s involvement with the Enquete-Kommission was the start of his strong engagement for science policy and communication. “From then on, I was invited to give lectures, interviews, expert opinions – and it never stopped. I also started writing books, the last one was just published six weeks ago.”





Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker at EBML



In the forty years in which Winnacker shaped science policy, he translated science for society. “The language of molecular biology is not a language which the public understands, at least not back when I started. We had to begin by translating our language, developing the language for what a gene is, for example.” Importantly, the bridge between science and society is not a one-way street.



Society pays for science and society is touched, influenced by science – therefore, society has to understand science.  But equally, it is important for science to be understood by society. For example, when laws are passed, the laws should be sensible. It goes both ways.”


One reason why science communication is so important is the immanent value of basic research. “Basic research is science-driven and at first, no applications are identified; often, applications emerge later and in a different form. But we have to start early on and prepare society for its engagement with science.” Mendelian genetics initially had no relevance for daily life. “At the beginning, no one imagined that this work would be important. And today, we discuss which section of a virus’ genome to target with a vaccine. Therefore, society has to be prepared to spend money on science, even when no application is identified.”





Science and society: a two-way street

As science has developed into a bigger, global affair, the need to communicate science with the public and, in turn, engage with the public has increasingly been recognized by his colleagues, Winnacker says. Now, fake news has added a new dimension to the conversation between science and society. “Again, it is a two-way street. Science has to clearly recognize what fake news is and that science is being wrongly understood and interpreted. On the other hand, it should be in society’s interest to not pursue phantoms, like fake news.” Trust in science is key in tackling society’s (future) challenges, such as mitigating and living with climate change. “People need to get used to the fact that science can also give them answers. The problems are huge and can only be solved by science.” Here, Winnacker sees science in the German sense of “Wissenschaft”, encompassing not only the natural sciences, but also the social sciences and humanities. “These challenges have to be understood – or tried to be understood – through suitable, scientific questions.”

Winnacker also faced personal risks for his engagement – a time he prefers to put behind him.



“At the time, the Red Army Fraction wanted to kill anyone with influence in society. I was also on their list. Although it lasted for just three years, it was a difficult time: our house was under protection, two cars had to travel with me. My office windows were fortified with bullet-proof glass – and still are, today. People who don't know all this wonder why they can't get the windows to open”,



he recalls with a wry laugh. “These were attempts to undermine democracy, and genetic engineering fell under this.” However, not doing this work was not an option. “If we look around, life expectancy has risen, we can tackle cancer, IVF has been established. I was not alone in this work, which was worth the risk.”

Beyond his engagement for science in the society, Winnacker was also a highly successful research manager: From 1998 to 2006, Winnacker was the president of the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft, where he spearheaded the “Exzellenzinitiative”, an initiative to expand research opportunities in Germany. From 2007 to July 2009, Winnacker was the first Secretary General of the European Research Council, shaping the fortunes of research funding in Europe. In 2009, he took over as Secretary General of the Human Frontier Science Program. His priorities were to promote the careers of young scientists and to foster initiatives for women in science. “We have succeeded in promoting young talents: Fostering early independence worked, to some extent”, Winnacker sums up. “When we look at women in science, a lot has been achieved, but the situation could be much better. There is a lot still to do.”


Author: Sophie Fessl




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