ALLEA President delivers MacCormick European Lecture in Edinburgh

On 4 November 2015, ALLEA President Günter Stock delivered the annual MacCormick European Lecture at the Royal Society of Edinburgh on the kind invitation of RSE President Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell. In his lecture, Professor Stock reflected upon the role of academies in the age of the Enlightenment, drawing a parallel to today’s contemporary academies and arguing that providing scientific advice can be viewed as a form of “modern enlightenment”. Ulti­mately, the mandate of academies remains to enlighten – by upholding and continuing this tradition of enabling the discovery and communication of scientific knowledge. The following text encapsulates the main themes of enlightenment and the academies as conveyed by Professor Stock in his lecture.

Academies were a result and at the same time an enormous driving force of and for the Enlightenment. And hence, academies like the RSE rightly consider themselves as enlightenment societies. The German writer Marie von Ebner-Eschenbach once said, “Who doesn’t know anything, has to believe everything,” a modern version of the phrase used by Immanuel Kant during the Enlightenment: sapere aude.

UK_Royal Society of Edinburgh

The Royal Society of Edinburgh

Through learning how to understand, interpret, and analyse our world we have created as Jürgen Mittelstraß calls it a Leonardo world. It is therefore obvious that our responsibility for the future of this – our – world is enormous. Whatever the outcomes of what we have achieved might be, they can only truly be mastered with more and better information, knowledge, and science in general, with more wisdom. In recent years, we have learned that the great challenges ahead of us such as climate, energy, health, and inequalities, to name only a few, can only be tackled or, to say more modestly, can only be approached if we are able to combine all of the current knowledge we have and make this knowledge available in a qualitative and timely fashion.

To allow for taking the appropriate measures and developing the means to respond to these challenges, quality assurance and interdisciplinarity of the highest possible standards are the first mandates which have to be brought forward by academia and hence by academies. In a world with ever increasing knowledge, universal geniuses – if they really existed once upon a time – to whom one could conceivably delegate issues and problems are no longer available. It is civil society that needs to understand, in principle, what is needed in order to properly decide upon and implement measures.

It is exactly this responsibility which has to be accepted – not exclusively, but to a great extent – by modern academies. First, they need to help society to develop the necessary mental attitude and then show society what options and alternatives are currently available based on scientific knowledge and judgment. We call this scientific advice or, more histrionically, modern enlightenment.

This enlightenment or science-based advice is of course a global endeavour, a national endeavour, and, even more so, a European task. Currently, a European academy consortium (Academia Europaea, ALLEA, EASAC, Euro-CASE, and FEAM) is preparing, together with the European Commission, a new mechanism for scientific advice (SAM), which will be an important contribution to the improvement of European political efficiency.

Last but not least, European academies have both a mandate and the obligation to preserve, interpret, and make available in the broadest possible sense the European cultural heritage and its relationship with the global cultural heritage. This indispensable task means that we must strive to underline and support what our predecessors have called the “soul” of Europe. Thus, the term enlightenment is neither outdated nor old-fashioned: it is the essence of modern academies.

The Royal Society of Edinburgh is Scotland’s national academy. Founded in 1783, its Fellowship includes some of the best intellectual talent in academia, the professions and business. It facilitates public debate, research programmes, educational projects and strategy formulation. Its strength is its diversity and impartiality. The Society’s unique multi-disciplinary approach enables it to draw from and link with a broad spectrum of expertise to advance the understanding of globally-important issues. In fulfilling its Royal Charter for the ‘advancement of learning and useful knowledge’, the RSE is seeking to contribute to the social, cultural and economic wellbeing of Scotland.

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