Various topics were discussed in the four panels. These included Science in and of the Pandemic – How Universities Change Society, and Research and Teaching in and About the Pandemic – How Universities and Science Must Prove Themselves. The central role of science in coping with the pandemic was discussed and the panels went on to look into the future as well.
Science in and of the Pandemic – How Universities Change Society
The impact that science made on society as clear to see: the necessary vaccine was developed in record time. But the scientists had been the topic of discussion even before this occurred. After all, they advise politicians and appear in mass media as experts. Professor Gernot Marx is Director of the Clinic for Operative Intensive Medicine and Intermediate Care at Uniklinik RWTH Aachen and President of the German Interdisciplinary Association for Intensive and Emergency Medicine, and his expert opinion was in huge demand. He would have liked to have been in such demand before the pandemic struck, as he went on to say: “We have been waiting years for the field of Intensive Medicine to be recognized to the extent that it is now being recognized”.
One of the key things that Marx has learned from the past year and a half is that communication needs to be improved upon. He said: “We need to get better at this. Scientific knowledge needs to be transferred to everyone.”
Being in the spotlight was something that was quite alien to scientists at the beginning. What’s more, society was just as in the dark as to how exactly science works. Director of the Clinic for Pneumology and Internistic intensive Medicine at Uniklinik RWTH Aachen, Professor Michael Dreher, remarked: “We’ve all learned way more than we would have liked to about this pandemic. It has shown us how science and universities can work together in a manner that was unknown to us before. The public was not able to assess our work prior to the pandemic. What counts as right today may indeed be wrong tomorrow and if the public don’t understand this, we may come across as being implausible. If people believe that a scientist in an advisory position is always right, then this is a problem. We need to be much more honest about what we know and what we don’t know. Putting scientists into the spotlight like that just spreads fear.”
Dr. Carola Holzner is known on social media as Doc Caro and she provides advice on medical subjects. It was in this role that she achieved enormous popularity during the pandemic. She said: “The connection is missing between the universities and the public at large. Research and science are essential. But we need those people who communicate in a manner that can be understood by the masses. We can do many things better in the future, this includes using social media as a source of information regarding what problems people really have.
The three experts were clear on what the key question is: “How can we capitalize on the interest in science that has developed during the pandemic?”
Research and Teaching in and About the Pandemic – How Universities and Science Must Prove Themselves
The pandemic has shown how fast universities can react when the level of pressure is high. Teaching and learning has been digitalized across the board. Philipp Schmidt, Director of Learning and Collaboration at MIT Media Lab, said: “Many things have been done that we believed to be impossible before.” One of the things that made this possible was that staff from the USA could easily take part in the panel in Aachen. Digitalization has indeed been successful, but Schmidt believes that it also showed that students and universities that were already successful were better able to cope with the new situation. He said: “Those institutions that are less successful are much more reliant on face-to-face teaching.” For him, the question remains: How do we tackle the social components of digitalization?
Digitalization needs to be more well thought-through. A year and a half of pandemic has taught us a great deal. What’s next? Dr. Malte Persike, Scientific Head of the Center for Learning and Teaching Services at RWTH Aachen University, asked the following questions: “How do we learn from what we have already learnt? What will university learning be like in 2030? What are the core principles that we wish to use for researching and learning? What do we mean when we say that digitalization is a core topic?
However, digitalization is just one aspect that we need to tackle. Schmidt went on to ask: “How can we develop a new innovation structure from crisis management? How can we create and maintain a brand new culture?”
Dr. Rainer Lange, Head of the “Research” department, Office of the German Council of Science and Humanities, said that on the one hand, he knows people for whom the pandemic brought about the most productive period in their lives to date. On the other hand, however, he believes that teaching and research have drifted away from one another, as students had less access to research because universities were occupied in ensuring that teaching and learning was kept available. He asserts that this must not be allowed to continue.
A disadvantage of federalism is that science does not speak with a unanimous voice.
Dr Markus Zanner
Does Science Play a Crucial Role in Combatting the Pandemic?
Dr. Christina Reinhardt, Chancellor of the Ruhr-Universität Bochum, said: “Outside of the world that we live in, the role that science plays is more evident.” But universities were occupied with other topics in the previous one and a half years. One of these was communication. “A disadvantage of federalism is that science does not speak with a unanimous voice.” This was how Dr. Markur Zanner, Chancellor of the newly founded TU Nürnberg, put it. Professor Matthias Hornef, Director of the Institute for Medical Microbiology at RWTH Uniklinik Aachen, said: “We need to keep people better informed next time; the politicians have failed them in this regard. The discourse in the crisis is not based on the rules that otherwise apply in the field of science. What exactly is an expert? Is it merely someone whom the media portray to be so?
Another topic is data protection. Dr. Markus Zanner, Chancellor of the newly founded TU Nürnberg, said: “We’ve not finished talking about the subject of data protection. Face-to-face meetings vs digital meetings has not been discussed thoroughly enough. Which parts of university learning do we wish to keep at all costs?
The topic of bureaucracy.
“We are increasingly having to resort to workarounds”, said Zanner. Christina Reinhardt was of the opinion that Chancellors must assume more responsibility for this
I would like to see the modernization trend from the pandemic continue; we will need this trend for the difficulties to come. Simply put, we will never travel the way we did before the pandemic.
Dr. Ulrike Eickhoff
Looking to the Future – What Will Go Back to the Way it was Before?
Life will never be the same as it was before the pandemic. But what will actually change long-term at universities? Professor Alena Buyx, Chair of the German Ethics Council, believes that “We need to find the balance between the requirements of the institution and the individuals who have learnt that being more flexible has a number of advantages. This is the case regardless of whether we are in a pandemic situation or not.” This does indeed present a challenge!
But the situation has generated a number of opportunities as well. Dr. Waltraud Kreutz-Gers, Chancellor of Johannes-Gutenberg-Universität Mainz said: “The exceptional situation has made our internal communication much better. This is something that we need to carry on professionalizing. Professor Sabine Kunst, President of the Humboldt-Universität, Berlin, said: “I would like to see digital teaching and learning becoming more international and available on demand. This would create a greater level of transparency.” Dr. Ulrike Eickhoff, Head of the Program and Infrastructure Funding Department at the German Research Foundation added, “I would like to see the modernization trend from the pandemic continue; we will need this trend for the difficulties to come. Simply put, we will never travel the way we did before the pandemic.”
Buyx said: “All these topics are hindered by the rigid conditions in place and the enormous bureaucracy that has developed.” She went on to place the onus on those in charge at the universities: “Those people who have been putting up with these problems for years need to put pressure on the system. In Germany, we are caught up in a web of rules and this is making things very difficult. It is putting the brakes on innovation in Germany and therefore, changes to the law really do need to be made.
We need to find the balance between the requirements of the institution and the individuals who have learnt that being more flexible has a number of advantages. This is the case regardless of whether we are in a pandemic situation or not. Those people who have been putting up with these problems for years need to put pressure on the system. In Germany, we are caught up in a web of rules and this is making things very difficult. It is putting the brakes on innovation in Germany and therefore, changes to the law really do need to be made.
Professor Alena Buyx