Science with future: interview with representatives of the Max Planck Sustainability Network

The Max Planck Society is an association of 86 German scientific institutes across disciplines. With 20,000 employees and a total of 35 Nobelists, it is one of the largest and most prestigious scientific institutions in the world. For the last two years, intense discussions about ecological, climate and overall social sustainability of operations and research have been going on. Sustainable Academy, an ecological and climate sustainability initiative at the Czech Academy of Sciences, conducted an interview with two members of the Steering Committee of the Max Planck Sustainability Network. Moritz Hütten is an astroparticle physicist at the Max Planck Institute of Physics in Munich and Sophie Lohmann is a social psychologist at the Max Planck Demographic Institute in Rostock. The interview can serve as an inspiration for transformation efforts at the Czech Academy of Sciences and for other academic institutions.

The interview was designed by Zuzana Harmáčková, Jan Hladký, Tereza Stöckelová and Kamil Vlček. Czech translation of the interview was published on

Sustainable Academy invites you to a webinar on June 24, 2021 between 15:30 and 16:30CEST featuring Sophie Lohmann who will present the activities and goals of the Max Planck Sustainability Network in more detail. More information can be found here.

Could you tell us about your academic career and the role sustainability has played in it?

SL: My background lies in social psychology and what initially drew me into a research career was the question of how and why people change their behavior. Academically, I started studying self-regulation and persuasion processes, but personally, I simultaneously became more and more concerned about news about climate change that I kept hearing and asking myself how behavior change is possible in that domain. At the same time, the more I delved into academia, the more I saw how much travel is involved in senior researchers' daily lives - often flying to other cities or even countries just for a two-day grant panel or meeting. I realized that a discipline in which frequent flights are such a normative part of a research career cannot responsibly continue in the face of the climate crisis, and I began thinking about how academia could change to step up to that responsibility. I then first joined the Max Planck Sustainability Network (Max-Planck-Nachhaltigkeitsnetzwerk; MPSN) through discussions on changing the nature of business travel among researchers. In my own research, I have now also started projects to examine behavior change applied to climate change mitigation behaviors.

The MPSN was officially launched in May 2019. What were the key incentives and concerns, and what were the milestones in its 2-year history?

MH: The MPSN was founded after several local initiatives had already existed for several years, to exchange experiences and homogenize their actions. While activities had previously been constrained to local issues, the foundation of the MPSN allowed the tackling of big-picture issues concerning the whole Max Planck Society (Max-Planck-Gesellschaft; MPG) and beyond and the far-reaching promotion of topics: Key milestones were a call for self-commitment to climate-friendly business trips in the MPG in 2019 signed by 483 employees, and the compilation of our 100-page Catalogue of Recommendations, handed over to the president of the MPG in January 2021. The foundation of the MPSN also promoted the foundation of many more local initiatives: From a handful of local groups in 2018, we went to having established local sustainability groups at more than 40 of 85 MPIs. To date, we have active members at more than 50 institutes, over 460 subscribers to our newsletter, and high reach on social media. The virtual network meeting in 2020 was attended by 150 people.

Is there any systematic mode of support from and communication with the Max Planck Society management for MPSN? Were MPSN and its concerns in any way acknowledged by the Max Planck Society?

MH: We are in regular contact with the General Administration, and several of their members are also network members and even members of our advisory board. We regularly interface with the Presidential Commission for Climate Protection established in 2020 by the President of the MPG, personally held discussions with the Vize Presidents of the MPG, and talked to the President of the MPG when we handed over the Catalogue of Recommendations (CaRe). The recommendations of CaRe were translated into German by the General Administration, and now serve as working basis for their and the Presidential Commission’s work. Also, in the past the General Administration has financially supported our network meetings and provides us with access to technological tools such as email and cloud storage infrastructure, as well as the official MPG website domain and layout.

Are there any other significant grassroots initiatives within the Max Planck Society?

SL: We are fortunate to work in a very vibrant environment where many different employees are getting involved in peer exchange and advocacy. For example, the PhDNet and Postdocnet support our graduate students and research scientists and represent their interests, the MPQueer Network stands up for the interests of LGBTQA+ individuals within the Max Planck Society, and the recently formed Mental Health Collective is raising awareness of mental health struggles as well as resources for support. Our partnerships with these groups have been indispensable in reaching out to staff members across the entire Max Planck Society and we are grateful for our collaborations with them.

German academic institutions such as the FU Berlin or Leuphana University serve as models to many other academic institutions, both in their activities towards inner sustainability and their wider public and academic engagement. What is the overall level of discussions in German research and academic environment?

SL: I have observed a rising awareness of the topic of sustainability in recent years. I think the Fridays For Future movement has played an important role in that rise, as their actions have sensitized society in general to the climate crisis and have inspired the formation of the Scientists For Future network—which was actually founded by German, Austrian, and Swiss researchers! In addition, many universities and other research institutions now have their own sustainability committees or grassroots sustainability initiatives. As the sustainability network of one of Germany’s largest academic institutions, we are continuously seeking to connect with other national and international groups and coordinating our actions.

You and your colleagues from the MPSN are authors of a recent paper in the Frontiers in Sustainability. In that article you argued that it is a moral obligation of researchers to transition towards a more environmentally sustainable way of working in academia. There is a common counterargument that such a transition would impair academic freedom and research quality. In particular, the effects of the reduction of flying seem to be a concern. Could you comment on how you see the tension between sustainability and quality?

MH: Sustainability considerations impact the administrative framework in which research happens, not the research topics or research questions themselves. And to the contrary, the urge for sustainability in science, as in the rest of society, is driven by the goal to maintain freedom of action and resources to continue our work in the medium-to-long term: The consequences of non-sustainable practices may strongly limit our resources and begin to impede the accumulation of scientific knowledge in as little as a few decades from now. Also in the short term, self-imposed sustainability practices can increase the freedom of action beyond regulations imposed from the top down, such as by higher-order political decision-makers. Finally, sustainable practices like maximizing the insights gained from the financial and environmental resources we invest in science (by publishing null-results, practicing open access, and exchanging knowledge online) can enhance the quality of research by increasing equal opportunities of access and dissemination of knowledge.

Could you describe the structure of the MPSN?

MH: The MPSN consists of an executive steering committee and an advisory board, both elected annually by the chairs of the local sustainability groups at MPIs. Chairs of local groups are determined by the groups’ own democratic processes. Also, the MPSN has working groups on specific topics and resources on the network level, which is constituted by general network members (any MPG affiliate can join). In practice, not all network members are members of local groups, and not all local group members are network members. There is no hierarchy in the steering committee, currently consisting of four people, but a sharing of responsibilities. My tasks as member of the steering committee include membership management and overseeing our website.

Members of the MPSN include students and researchers of all levels of seniority as well as technical and administrative staff. How does the network work with and benefit from this diversity?

MH: Currently, 55% of the network are scientific staff, 5% technical staff, and 40% administrative staff. 63% of the scientific personnel are Master’s students or PhD candidates, 18% researchers with non-permanent positions, and 19% permanent staff. The various skillsets and backgrounds that are represented in our network complement each other, for example, for organizing events and reaching out to and getting buy-in from various groups, such as internally interacting with the administration and upper management.

What do you consider the most important activities of the MPSN? What are your goals in the near future?

SL: Our main goals are to lobby for a research environment that can be sustained without causing harm to the world’s ecosystems and to coordinate local grassroots groups at the individual Max Planck Institutes. Regarding the first goal, we believe that research fulfills an incredibly important role in society, but currently also causes harm—we are convinced that it is possible to change and optimize the research environment in a way that protects ecosystems and mitigates climate change. We want to push for these changes and monitor their implementation. In the near future, one of our main concerns is therefore to ensure regular CO2 assessments in the Max Planck Society that will let us assess and quantify our progress towards becoming a sustainable research organization.

Many such changes are already being proposed and implemented by the local sustainability groups in our network and our second goal is to provide an umbrella organization for their efforts. We see our role as providing support, facilitating the exchange of knowledge and experiences between these groups, and coordinating communication. Finally, both of these goals rely on us raising awareness for the topic of sustainability in the first place. We do this through a variety of measures—we are talking to member of the General Administration, speakers present innovative solutions for sustainable research in our webinars, and local groups are establishing sustainability as a topic on their individual institutes' agendas.

The structure of the Max Planck Society is similar to that of the Czech Academy of Sciences, with loose central management and independent institutes. Where should sustainability efforts be directed in such a setting?

SL: In our experience, it is crucial to act at both levels within this organizational structure that the MPG and the Czech Academy both share. This need is reflected in our organization’s framework, which is modeled after this two-pronged structure of the MPG: On the one hand, we have the independent local sustainability groups which work together with the independent institutes, on the other hand, we have the overarching network that integrates these efforts and addresses its communication at central management. The General Administration sets the bureaucratic frameworks for how research can be organized within the MPG—for example, reimbursement policies for business trips cannot be changed without the General Administration’s support and action. The local institutes, in turn, make many of the decisions about which issues are prioritized and how funds are used—for example, installing solar panels on our roofs to source renewable energy necessarily requires the support and action of institute’s directors and heads of administration. We see our two-pronged structure as an advantage that allows us to push for change at all levels of the MPG, with the aim of transforming our entire institution into a sustainable research organization.


Domain is owned by the Institute of Mathematics of the Czech Academy of Sciences.


  • Zuzana Harmáčková
  • Jan Hladký
  • Vojtěch Pravda
  • Tereza Stöckelová
  • Kamil Vlček