Three Questions for Erasmus Alumnus Patrick Cramer

A short interview with the President of the Max Planck Society
Reading time: 6 min.

Professor Cramer, in your inaugural address as President of the Max Planck Society, you emphasised the importance of global connections for science, one of the reasons being that they build bridges that outlive contemporary history. To what extent did your experiences as an Erasmus student at the University of Bristol in the UK shape this view?

Professor Patrick Cramer: To a very large extent. When I arrived in Bristol with my rucksack back in 1992, there were border controls and customs. When I returned to England again in January 1993 after my Christmas break in Germany, everything had changed. The Maastricht Treaty had come into force on 1 January 1993. I was interviewed by a British TV station at the time – I still have videotape – and asked what the situation was like in Europe. In other words, people on the island simply did not feel part of Europe. 

Then there were some very positive developments. The UK was part of the EU and lots of things became easier. When Brexit eventually happened almost three decades later, it made me really sad because I’ve always felt very close to the people on the island since living there, and I visit colleagues and give lectures there at least once a year.

This is what Erasmus does: it provides young people with a new perspective of the world and helps them understand different societies, countries and cultures. These experiences remain with you all your life. They reduce prejudices, broaden horizons and build bridges. My big concern is that the achievements that have been made will be threatened within a generation if there are fewer exchanges between students (and school pupils). People involved in science around the world must remain in touch, even when times are hard. Because when we enter a new age, we are ready to build bridges.

Erasmus provides young people with a new perspective of the world and helps them understand different societies, countries and cultures. These experiences remain with you all your life. They reduce prejudices, broaden horizons and build bridges. 
Patrick Cramer
Der Eingang zur Generalverwaltung der Max-Planck-Gesellschaft in der Münchener Hofgartenstraße. Links ist der Kopf der Minerva im Profil zu sehen.
The entrance to the Max Planck Society headquarters on Hofgartenstrasse in Munich. On the left, a side profile of Minerva’s head can be seen. 
© Max-Planck-Gesellschaft

You spent time as a postdoc at Stanford University in California with your family, and you found out for yourself how quickly a period abroad can also become a financial challenge. What should fellowships do to enable early career researchers to gain international experience?

My concern at that time was that the dollar exchange rate suddenly changed to my disadvantage, and it wasn’t until much later that my German grant was adjusted. That meant my young family suddenly had very little money. We had problems paying the rent, and rents were rising rapidly in Silicon Valley at the time – before the new market «bubble» collapsed. 

So fellowships should be able to react as dynamically as possible to situations like that. Plus, it’s not the same everywhere in the US. The cost of living is much higher in Silicon Valley or New York than it is in many other parts of the country. This should also be factored in. It’s also important to remember that childcare outside Germany is usually expensive. Back then, we could only afford it for a few hours. Fellowships should be able to cater to the needs of families. 

But notwithstanding that, the fellowship I received from the German Research Foundation (DFG) at the time was absolutely vital for my career and I’m extremely grateful for it. If I hadn’t gone to Stanford, I would never have been able to raise research in our working group to the level that we have achieved. And without the fellowship, I would not have had the career in science that I have had.

Foto von Prof. Patrick Cramer, Präsident der Max-Planckgesellschaft an einem Tisch sitzend.
© Christoph Mukherjee/Max-Planck-Gesellschaft

Patrick Cramer studied chemistry at the Universities of Stuttgart, Bristol and Heidelberg. After receiving his diploma in chemistry from the University of Heidelberg in 1995, he completed a doctorate at the University of Heidelberg/EMBL Grenoble (France) in 1998. Cramer then became a postdoctoral fellow in the laboratory of Roger Kornberg at Stanford University (1999–2001), where he determined the three-dimensional structure of RNA polymerase II, one of the biggest enzymes in the cell nucleus. Kronberg received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2006 for his «studies of the molecular basis of eukaryotic transcription». Between 2001 and 2014, Cramer was professor of biochemistry at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München. He has been a Scientific Member at the Max Planck Society since 2014. On 22 June 2023, he took up the office of President of the Max Planck Society for the period 2023–2029. Cramer is a member of the National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina, the European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO) and the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS).

In light of the many crises the world is currently facing, science is also a peace-building tool.
Patrick Cramer

You have argued that the voice of science must be heard in social discourse. How can this be done?

The German Basic Law grants us scientific freedom. This is a very valuable asset. I see it as my duty to use this freedom, also to clearly define the opportunities and risks of research and to allow the voice of science to be heard in current public debates, free of political constraints. We have experts on so many subjects at the Max Planck Society and we can take a stand on so many things. Just think of the ethical, legal and technological implications of artificial intelligence, future energy sources or the migration movements caused by the climate crisis and the related challenges for international law.

I talk to representatives of the media and give interviews. In light of the many crises the world is currently facing, science is also a peace-building tool. It can bring together people from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. In the Max Planck Society, people from 127 countries around the world carry out research. Their work has the potential to build bridges, even in difficult times. In this respect, you will hear from us again and again. And I hope that at one point or another we will be able to make a difference.

The Max Planck Society

conducts basic research in the natural sciences, life sciences and humanities. It was founded in 1948 as a successor organisation to the Kaiser Wilhelm Society and has 31 Nobel laureates in its ranks. 

The Max Planck Society is funded equally by the federal government and federal states and in 2022 had a budget of around 1.98 billion euros. It also receives third-party project funding from public or private donors and the European Union, and receives revenue from its own technology transfer.

The Max Planck Society is a non-profit organisation under private law in the form of a registered association. The Society employed 23,950 staff as of 31 December 2021. These included 20,898 contractually employed persons, 519 fellows and 2,533 guest scientists. Of the contractually employed persons, 6,745 were employed as directors, research group leaders or scientific research assistants and a further 3,473 as doctoral candidates. Altogether 8,625 people work in a non-scientific capacity in technology and administration, with 397 employees completing training programmes on the reporting date. A further 1,500 persons were employed as student and research assistants.

With its 85 Max Planck Institutes and research facilities, it is the international flagship for German science. In addition to five institutes based outside of Germany, it operates 20 Max Planck Centers with research institutions such as Princeton University, Sciences Po in Paris, University College London and the University of Tokyo.

Max Planck researchers collaborate especially closely with German universities: 80 percent of Max Planck researchers with “habilitation” status are actively involved in university teaching. As part of the German federal and state governments’ Excellence Initiative to promote science and research at German universities, the Max Planck Society was involved in over 70 percent of the successful applications for Clusters of Excellence and in over 50 percent of the successful applications for doctoral programmes in the first two rounds of the competition. Max Planck Institutes are involved in almost every third special research field of the German Research Foundation (DFG).

To further intensify its successful collaboration with universities, the Max Planck Society established the Max Planck Fellows programme in 2005. The programme offers teaching staff at universities the opportunity to lead a research group based at a Max Planck Institute for a five-year period. A total of 34 working groups of this type have been established to date.

Translation based on the following sources: [18.10.2023]

Interviewed by Lutz Cleeves