Goodbye, Ivory Tower? Knowledge and solutions for the earth and mankind

Those who want to bring science into the realm of politics and society face new challenges. The director of the Biodiversity and Climate Research Center and Senckenberg board member Katrin Böhning ­Gaese identifies what these challenges are and how Senckenberg will approach them constructively.

Professor Böhning-Gaese, you have headed the “Science and Society” program since 2017. Why do we need this program?

This can be derived from our society’s statutes. They stipulate that our institution follows the purpose to conduct nature research and make the results accessible to the public. We have done this since our inception in 1817. However, the ways in which we disseminate the knowl-edge and how we communicate have changed. In part, this is due to the fact that Senckenberg increasingly addresses issues relevant to society. Our agenda includes questions and problems that affect all of us – and that we can ultimately only solve together. Therefore, we need dialog – at eye level!


What are the most pressing topics?

Let’s take a look at species extinction. At the latest since the publication of the World Biodi-versity Council IPBES’s global report in early May 2019 we know that the situation is critical. Of around eight million species worldwide, one million are threatened with extinction, and the current extinction rate is at least 10 to 100 times higher than in the past ten million years. This has an impact on ecosystem functions, our nutrition, our health, and also, if you wish, on our soul. Senckenberg needs to address this topic.

Address it to whom exactly? What can we do to stop the loss of biodiversity? And what is the role of the “Science and Society” program in this regard?

Ultimately, we need a transformation of politics, economy, and society to initiate and implement a sustainable development in all areas. For example, to stop the insect die-back in our agri-cultural landscape, it is not enough to outlaw neonicotinoids and glyphosate. We need an agri-culture that is not exclusively oriented toward maximumprofitabilityandproduction.Wehaveto consider everything: the soil, the pollinators, the CO2 binding. This also includes us humans: the consumers who need wholesome and healthy food as well as the farmers who depend on a proper income – i.e., an agriculture that still feeds our children and grandchildren. There-fore, we must change our consumer behavior and keep our ecological footprint as small as possible. First and foremost, we must reconsider our values and ask what constitutes a “good life.”

What impetus can science and Senckenberg provide here? How do we reach the people?

As meeting places, research museums such as Senckenberg are ideally suited for such debates. Most of the visitors come here to be awed and to hear exciting stories. But more and more peo-ple visit us because they worry about our planet and would like to learn more about the earth. Besides exhibitions and specimens, we also need space and time in our museum for dialog, for constructive discussions among each other. Senkenberg can provide the scientific facts needed in this regard. At our institute, people can get involved in research and – this is new – join us in working toward solutions for mankind and the earth.

As citizen scientists?

Among others, but not only. Just take the “Bio-compass” projects and our new participative special exhibition “Shaping our Future – How do we want to live?” We would like it if our visitors not only came to the museum to get information but went out afterwards to effect changes. Mr. Wenzel, will you still be eating your Brat-wurst at the weekly market in the year 2040? Maybe by then you will prefer a local organic muesli or algae from your own little bio-reactor?

There is no right life in the wrong one. At any rate, I hope to be able to still eat meat 20 years from now and no longer be forced to search so painstakingly for really “good food.” But I would cut back significantly to curb against animal cruelty caused by intensive livestock farming. I don’t think we can reform the visitors in our museum. Do we need to orient our research toward these new societal requirements?

You are correct where the visit to the museum is concerned. But we can give an impetus. In terms of research, society depends on research as conducted by Senckenberg: the study of species, of habitats today and in earlier times – not least to learn from the past for the future. Here, we need to maintain our capacity. But we also need more application-oriented research and joined research with social scientists to address the multiple needs of mankind, our need for nature, but also for an adequate income and social community.

Have the people’s needs changed?

They have come closer to our topics than ever before. Looking back on 30 years of biodiversity research, I can say that we scientists must raise our voices and be heard. We must broach the is-sue of species extinction and its consequences, offer facts, and request a debate in politics and society. This approach worked in regard to the insect die-back. Science, supported by the citizens,tookastandandprovidedspecificsugges-tions for a solution. For example, the joint state-ments regarding species extinction by Leopoldina, acatec, and the Academy Union were met with great interest by politicians. We are currently working on a new version with concrete recom-mendations for action for the various depart-ments to put an end to species extinction. We cannot tolerate a “business as usual” approach – we owe that to our children.

That is an optimistic outlook. Thank you for the interview.

In Conversation with

Prof. Dr. Katrin Böhning-Gaese
Professor, Director "Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Centre"

RESEARCH INTERESTS: Macroecology, community ecology and Social-Ecological Systems

  • Influence of global change on animal communities in the tropics and in the temperate region
  • Relationships between animal communities, ecosystem functions and ecosystem services
  • Relationships between biodiversity and human well-being in Social-Ecological Systems

TEACHING: Courses at Goethe University Frankfurt in the MSc Ecology and Evolution and in the BSc Biology

MSc Ecology and Evolution and MSc Environmental Sciences: module “Community ecology, Makroökologie und Naturschutz”

  • Content: The module includes an introductory lecture, seminars on current scientific publications, and computer and field practicals. It gives an overview about theory, statistical methods and applications of community ecology and macroecology, as well as consequences for regional and global conservation prioritisation. The module includes an ornithological fieldwork practical outside Frankfurt (duration 1 week). 
  • Contact: Susanne Fritz, Phone: +49 (0)69 7542 1803 E-Mail:

BSc Biology: specialisation module “Ökologie der Tiere” (animal ecology) – part “Makroökologie – Einfluss des Klimawandels auf Artverbreitungen” (macroecology – influence of climate change on species distributions)

  • Content: In our part of the module we investigate the potential effects of climate change on the distributions of different European bird species. We use species distribution models to project potential distributions of birds in dependency of climate scenarios for the end of the 21st century.
  • Contact: Thomas Müller, Phone: +49 (0)69 7542 1889 E-Mail:
Thorsten Wenzel