The Ideological Understanding of Science

Vienna is a huge museum. The city is covered with gorgeous palaces, mansions and churches. Witnesses out of carved stone testify the former wealth and power of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. […]

Vienna at night. Breathtaking view from the Museum of Natural History (c) EUSJA

Vienna at night. Breathtaking view from the Museum of Natural History (c) EUSJA

Vienna is a huge museum. The city is covered with gorgeous palaces, mansions and churches. Witnesses out of carved stone testify the former wealth and power of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. The political clout of the 18th and 19th century has long gone. Nowadays the lush city at the Danube strives for scientific excellency and grandeur. During an EUSJA study trip to Austria’s capital the scholars demonstrated that they do want to belong to the world’s best and most reflective.

“There is no science without a philosophical and ethical framework”, pointed out Friedrich Stadler, professor at the Vienna Department of Contemporary History. Austria is beginning to take this serious and live up to its Nazi heritage. Historians produce evidence how Viennese biologists have contributed to racism and the holocaust. 75 years after, 2700 Jewish members of the University are commemorated. They were expelled and or in the course of their odyssey murdered.

Young scientists make the difference: Linda Erker investigates the ideology of science (c) EUSJA

Young scientists make the difference: Linda Erker investigates the ideology of science (c) EUSJA

In the process of this, new and innovative angles to this question emerge. How did Jewish scientists pursue their research in exile, i.e. in Southeast Asia? How was Austriafascism connected, politically and scientifically to the Franco regime? In her dissertation, Linda Erker investigates what she calls “the ideological understanding of science”. This immediately raises the question, unanswered yet but not less important which ideology runs 21st century science (and perhaps distorts it).

EUSJA visitors at Joseph II. monument: Against the resistance of the old elites he reformed Austria and introduced education for the general public (c) EUSJA

EUSJA visitors at Joseph II. monument: Against the resistance of the old elites he reformed Austria and introduced education for the general public (c) EUSJA

The excursion through Viennese labs had been organized by Oliver Cyril Lehmann, chairman of the Austrian Association of Education and Science Journalists. The start at the history department, right after breakfast, delivered the day’s message. Science and technology are done by people, with the people and for the people and thus are deeply embedded in the democratic principles. Or in Lehmann’s more general words: “Humanities are tackling natural sciences.”

The new WU campus:  Vanguard architecture introduces vanguard academical goals (c) EUSJA

The new WU campus: Vanguard architecture introduces vanguard academical goals (c) EUSJA

This or something similar could be the overall Vienna Research Mission Statement, also for the new University of Economics. WU is one of the highest ranking business schools in Europe, close to the Vienna Prater and within sight of the famous Ferris Wheel.

During lunch in the vanguard library, WU Rector Christoph Baldelt introduced the “open campus without fences”. In the center it exhibits a fancy building which seems to be coated by rust, but which is green in the inside with 70 percent of the heating and cooling provided by groundwater. Little parks and recreational facilities on the premises are available to the entire population. While academia’s ivory towers and the elite university are retreating a tricky questions remains, admits Baldelt in private conversation: How to spot and promote the real talents?

Interior of the Vienna reactor: dedicated to peace making missions (c) EUSJA

Interior of the Vienna reactor: dedicated to peace making missions (c) EUSJA

For coffee the almost 30 science journalists from 20 European nations were shuttled to the Institute of Atomic and Subatomic Physics ATI. Austrians learned their lesson derived from two lost wars. The department’s nuclear reactor is strictly used for basic research and peace seeking missions. Inspectors who check nuclear facilities around the world for abuse are being trained here. TRIGA Mark-II is the only nuclear reactor in Austria. Nuclear power plants are banned. Nonetheless to climb on top and to gaze into the reactor’s bluish core is quite a fascinating act.

The Vienna BioCenter is a distinguished European Institution which attracts researchers from the entire world. It’s geared to crack down on cancer, with the financial support of leading pharmaceutical companies. However it has not found yet an alternative to highly controversial animal testing. A respective question by one of the EUSJA journalists a researcher contested with: “Critics shall see both, mouse houses and chicken farms before they express an opinion.”

Schnitzel under dinosaurs: Vienna Museum of Natural History; in green coat: study trip host Oliver Lehmann (c) EUSJA

Schnitzel under dinosaurs: Vienna Museum of Natural History; in green coat: study trip host Oliver Lehmann (c) EUSJA

The EUSJA trip ended with a dinner in the Natural History Museum. Viennese Schnitzel was served under the skeletons of dinosaurs. Their sudden disappearance demonstrates the vulnerability of the Creation and the existence of a fine balance which enables life. This insight was reinforced during a closing tour of the museum. Repeatedly the chemistry of our atmosphere changed dramatically resulting in mass extinction which put the planet at the brink of death.

Exodus of life: Science needs to preserve the planet -- Vienna Message 2014 (c) Vienna

Exodus of life: Science needs to preserve the planet — Vienna Message 2014 (c) Vienna

Humans and their technology have started another, artificially caused change, with so far threatening and unpredicted consequences. In the Vienna Spirit, rolled out during this visit during beautiful spring weather, scientists together with science journalists could make the difference in this biggest of all experiments.

 

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About Wolfgang C. Goede

Wolfgang C. Goede is a science journalist based in Munich, Germany. He is a board member of the German Association of Science Writers TELI.