FreiheitBerlin: Brain City in the spirit of Humboldt

Today, Berlin is known internationally as a cosmopolitan, future-oriented location of the future whose most important resources are research and innovation. But socially, the freedom of science means much more: It shapes our lives. 

Lost in thought, Wilhelm von Humboldt’s gaze wanders into the distance. The famous scholar in front of the main building of the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin sits prominently on a pedestal and has been doing so since 1883. His equally well-known brother Alexander, after whom the university was named, sits next to him just a few meters away. Carved in stone, the two scientists symbolize what the university and research location Berlin stands for today as it did then: internationally networked science, interdisciplinarity, scientific excellence, social commitment, and the freedom of science according to the Humboldt educational ideal, which places the self-determination of man at the center.

Over the course of the 20th century, Berlin certainly experienced the breakdown of this ideal of freedom. With Hitler’s seizure of power, the National Socialists put an end to independent research in Berlin. Scientists were persecuted, expelled, and murdered and universities and research institutes were brought into line. After the Second World War, many researchers who emigrated helped rebuild free science in the western part of the city. In East Berlin, on the other hand, the freedom of research and teaching continued to be controlled and gagged by the GDR regime. That only changed after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

For me, freedom means working with other solidary forms of cooperation and mutual responsibility for one another. Prof.
Dr. Sabine Hark, Director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Women’s and Gender Studies at the TU Berlin

Today, Berlin is considered a “Brain City:” an exciting science location that unites tradition with the future. The research atmosphere of the capital is exceptionally open, which is mainly characterized by two factors: the high density of research institutions and the large variety of partners, networks, and opportunities for cooperation in the city. Around 250,000 people from all over the world currently study, teach, and research in Berlin at eleven state, two denominational, and around 30 private universities. There are also more than 70 non-university research institutions and numerous federal institutions, private research institutes, and campuses of international universities. And in the ten future locations of Berlin, including the Adlershof Science and Technology Park, business and science research and develop in close cooperation.

Not only research is top-class in the capital, but also the teaching: The Freie Universität Berlin and the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin are among the eleven German universities of excellence. Together with the Technische Universität Berlin, they are among the 100 best research universities in the world. The Charité-Universitätsmedizin Berlin, one of the largest university hospitals in Europe, is also there for international cutting-edge research.


“Berlin has an incredibly diverse and densely networked scientific culture that is attractive to many scientists and scholars around the world. The associated possibility of encountering a variety of heterogeneous perspectives is what adds up to the scientific freedom of the city,” Prof.   Dr. Sabine Hark confirms, Director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Women’s and Gender Studies at the TU Berlin. She adds, however: “Berlin could do much more to become a ‘City of Sanctuary’ for threatened scientists.” Because it is becoming increasingly clear around the world and in this country as well: the freedom of science is not self-evident.

The first steps have already been taken: In order to help researchers who are threatened in their home countries, Berlin launched a Programme for the Promotion of Freedom of Scholarship at the Einstein Foundation Berlin in early 2018. The Senate also financially supports language courses for scientists from other countries. Berlin’s universities are also involved: In late April, for example, a congress of the “Scholars at Risk” international network took place for the first time in Germany at the FU Berlin, in which more than 500 researchers and lecturers from more than 60 nations participated. Many of them had to leave home because they had exercised their right to free academic work.

“In countries like Turkey, but now also in European Union countries such as Hungary, it’s clear what dangers the attack on academic freedom pose not only to the life and limb of scientists, but also to the possibilities to freely conduct scientific research and teach,” says Sabine Hark. Her field of expertise, gender research, has long been subject to massive attacks, including concrete threats of violence and hostility toward colleagues. “This does not yet translate into concrete limitations within the scientific field. But the more such a climate of threats and fear is created, of course, it contributes to scientists considering whether they can or want to work on such issues,” the sociologist fears.



To draw attention to such restrictions placed on scientific freedom, more than 11,000 people took to the streets in Berlin in 2017, including not only renowned scientists but also the Governing Mayor of Berlin, Michael Müller. With a “March for Science,” they demonstrated between the main building of the Humboldt- Universität and the Brandenburg Gate against the denial of scientific knowledge and the dissemination of “alternative facts.” In 2018, the event was extended into Berlin’s “Kieze,” or neighborhoods. Scientists spoke as “Kiez-nerds” in pubs and cafés with the guests and talked about their work. The approach: Transparency and thus understanding for the importance of scientific work for society. “Science doesn’t just produce insights, but also socially powerful knowledge, which, for example, finds its way into political decision-making processes. It really does shape all of our lives,” Sabine Hark explains. 

With Science Slams, open lecture halls, and events such as the Berlin Science Week, the city’s scientific players are trying to raise awareness among Berliners about what free research means and what it produces. On June 9, 2018, more than 70 scientific institutions in Berlin and Potsdam once again opened their doors this year during the Long Night of the Sciences. 28,000 visitors learned about topics such as water recycling, robotics, the world of human stem cells and, for example, virtually traveled to the planet Mars in workshops, hands-on activities, experiments, and lectures Most importantly, they were able to ask questions, all in the spirit of science. “To adopt a scientific attitude means that we don’t take things at face value, that we question how something came to be, that we don’t make hasty final judgments, and that we consider that things could be very different,” Sabine Hark explains.

Wilhelm von Humboldt would have liked this sentence, because according to his liberal understanding, above all the university was one thing: a place that produces mature world citizens. Free-thinking individuals like the approximately 187,000-strong pool of young talent currently studying in Berlin.


Above: ©Humboldt-Universität/Heike Zappe
Middle above, left: ©Beuth Hochschule
Middle above, right: ©Berlin Partner/Wüstenhagen
Middle below, left: ©Berlin Partner
Middle below, right: ©Berlin Partner/Wüstenhagen
Below: ©FU Berlin/David Ausserhofer

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