Tear down the Wall!

November 9 marks the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall (see photo above by J. Dykstra). In the sciences, the reunification which followed saw both winners and losers. Some scientific institutes in the former East Germany folded, while others thrived. Some Easterners made career changes – Angela Merkel, the current Chancellor of Germany, was a physical chemist in the East, for example.

In a 1993 article in Science, Bernhard Sabel draws five lessons from the German experience:

  1. Science should not be assessed by the political leanings of its practitioners;
  2. Scientists and science students should participate freely in international exchange;
  3. Large-scale research institutions have not proven beneficial;
  4. Reintegration of science from research institutions back into universities strengthens both teaching and research; and
  5. Good will from West Germany and the wider international community was essential to German scientific reunification.

I recall that, as a young scientist, one society I belonged to encouraged Western members to pay the membership fee of one person in the Soviet Bloc. The resulting international exchanges were indeed beneficial to both sides.

I’ll leave the last word to Pink Floyd, who first commented on the Wall in 1979, and who performed live in Berlin eight months after the Wall fell: