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“Science does not make policy. It sets out the options” – interview with Hubert Wiggering

published by Karen Esser

We talk to Hubert Wiggering, who is not just in demand among the scientific community as an environmental expert but also recognized as an advisor by Germany’s politicians. An environmental scientist at the University of Potsdam, Professor Wiggering was formerly Secretary-General of the German Advisory Council on the Environment (SRU) as well as Director of the Leibniz Centre for Agricultural Landscape Research (ZALF).

Professor Wiggering, you are sometimes referred to as an environmental scientist or agricultural scientist. At the University of Potsdam, you are officially Professor of Geo-Ecology and Head of the Agricultural Sciences Research Group. What label do you feel most comfortable with and why?

At the moment I feel comfortable with the term ‘agricultural scientist’. That’s also due to it not being a clearly defined or circumscribed term. It lacks specificity, it has something superordinate about it. And I’m very comfortable with that. In my career I’ve always tried to look at issues in broader contexts. With the concept of ‘land sciences’ I’ve tried to create a bracket. My approach is to think and work holistically. The term ‘land’, and the question of how to deal with it, appear everywhere. It is important to look at this systemically. I definitely see it as provocative to turn this into a new, more comprehensive field of research. And that is exactly what should cause people to reflect and think again.

You were in policy consulting for many years and were enthusiastic about getting politically involved. In our complex world, can you sympathize with all the people who long for straightforward answers?

Of course. I can understand that very well. Straightforward answers are easier to deal with. Whereas this quest for details is deeply bound up with the way science is socialized. We have internalized this way of thinking. Science revolves around publications, and a narrow, deep, specialist focus is what’s called for when you get an article published. I do notice this time and time again: the more I emphasize the complexity of something, the more uneasy people feel. And so it’s crucial for me to involve them in the search for detailed answers, to pick up on what they observe, to include them in the overall context. I see this as like an orchestra. If every player does their own thing, you get cacophony. Only when it’s coordinated does an orchestra unleash its full strength.

You began your scientific career with a dissertation on “Greening of coal mine spoil heaps and their reintegration into the landscape”. How did this choice of topic come about?

Many things about my career have been shaped by my origins. I am from the Emsland region and grew up in northwest Germany. It’s heavily rural. That gives you a different perspective on the resources there are locally. You ask, what is happening there and why? That ultimately led me to geology. I asked myself, what kind of landscape is this here and what do we do with the resources? And I went on from there. When you drive around the Emsland region [editor’s note: in the North of Germany] you can see a completely altered landscape everywhere. Bogs have been drained and peat extracted, sand and gravel have been taken as building materials, and people have been drilling for oil and gas. You’re constantly faced with these human interventions in the landscape. And I asked myself what this is has been doing to the environment, whether we had been dealing with it adequately, and how we needed to change our approach. In the Ruhr area it’s about dealing with the legacies of coal mining.

From 1993 to 2001 you were Secretary-General of the German Advisory Council on the Environment (SRU). How did you end up in that position and what were the most important concerns for you then?

Actually, I didn’t have any ambitions to go into policy consulting in the beginning. I had been working on environmental issues, though, and had always advocated finding a different approach to ecosystems. One day a colleague told me I should put my name forward for the Advisory Council on the Environment, which was in the process of reorganizing so as to push for sustainability via the scientific policy advice process. I realized this was an opportunity to interact with politics in a different way. I also wanted to harness all the optimism around the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro and bring about something new. So I applied, and I got the job. My motto has always been that science does not make policy. But it sets out the options and creates a basis for decision-making.

Besides your work as a scientist and policy advisor, from 2014 onwards you’ve increasingly been writing books for a broader public that take on the role of agriculture and how it is perceived publicly – Land, Landschaft, Landwirtschaft 2071 (Land, Countryside, Agriculture 2071) to name but one, with its subtitle “Half dream, half delusion: a story that would like to be just fiction, but with which reality is catching up.” What gets you so worked up about this topic?

I was getting the sense that our public discourse about agriculture has completely lost its way. There have been so many new developments, and we need a new understanding of the subject. Farmers ensure our food security, but at the same time they must keep the environment in mind and farm as climate-neutrally as possible. We are a long way from having proper awareness of these aspects. When I came back to Potsdam University in 2014 after my stint heading the Leibniz Centre for Agricultural Landscape Research (ZALF) in Müncheberg, I felt even more strongly drawn towards policy advice. My time at ZALF had given me a desire to do things differently. I felt a calling to reach a broader audience with the questions I’ve been asking.

What makes agriculture such a complex topic in your view, and how do you approach the subject in your books?

Let’s take an example. It is well known that livestock agriculture releases greenhouse gases and is a major contributor to global warming. On the other hand, the way the livestock is kept and what it’s fed with can definitely help to reduce these greenhouse gas emissions, for example by re-upping the amount of grass that is fed to cows (who are roughage digesters), and generally only using natively produced feed. But that then brings us how we manage the countryside, and the crops that have to be cultivated to do this. In addition to the climate, this also raises animal welfare issues, so it’s immediately obvious how complex the issue actually is. And because I wanted to address a broader audience, I tried to approach the topic as a storyteller. I asked myself what agriculture might look like in 2071. The book needed to be a way to get people to engage with the topic, but should also be entertaining. I wanted to leave people this message: don’t just leave farmers to it, if we say we want agriculture to meet the demands of society.

You have been Professor of Geo-Ecology at the University of Potsdam since 2001. Do you still remember your first day in at the Golm campus / at Potsdam Science Park?

Yes, I do remember the day well. I arrived in Golm in Potsdam and was greeted by many old buildings with a kind of ramshackle charm. There was still a lot of open space, and it was a far cry from what we see now at Potsdam Science Park. This charm was the main thing about the place. But I already had the sense back then that things were being pushed forward on lots of fronts.

What is your view on how Potsdam Science Park has been transformed? 

Today the site looks totally different. I could see the changes particularly clearly because my position at the Leibniz Centre for Agricultural Landscape Research (ZALF) meant I was often away in Müncheberg rather than being constantly in Potsdam. So the changes were immediately noticeable for me. There was a campus taking shape. And visitors got the message: something special is being created here. As a scientist you could feel that too. New competencies have been set up here, there is more breadth of specialties as well as depth. You have all these in the same place here now, and that is great. In the future I hope this will give rise to even more synergies.

You read geology in Münster, taught at Harvard as an adjunct professor, held an associate professorship in Mainz, and have now been a professor at the University of Potsdam since 2001. What do you think is special about things here?

The advantage at Potsdam Science Park is that interactions between stakeholders and the institutions already work quite well. It’s a different process than at other, longer-established research sites. At the latter there can be many fixed ways of doing things. They have their own ingrained traditions. It’s true that people really like the concept of a campus, but a physical campus doesn’t lead to interaction per se; this has to be desired and developed. You have the chance to do things differently here. With its newness, the constant changes and the interactions between research institutes and business, the Potsdam Science Park has clear strengths when it comes to breaking new ground.

What are your plans for the future?

After the upcoming summer semester, I will be ‘retiring from active duty’, as the quaint phrase goes. But that doesn’t mean I will just be devoting myself to the finer things in life. I’m already doing the latter, but I will keep pursuing my passions for music and art. These can also link up with knowledge and dissemination. For example, I have organized field concerts where we put sensors on plants. With a synthesizer the plant’s chemical and physical processes can be made audible as electronic sounds. Improvising music over the top of that is a sublime experience. And it brings us into conversation with the audience in a different way and create new ways of making topics come to life. Another example: I am planning a series called “Listening to Bogs”. Peatlands are an important topic in climate terms: when they are rewetted, they can bind carbon long-term in an outstanding way. We will be using sensors to make this rewetting process acoustically tangible. Apart from that, I hope that we can learn from this terrible war in Ukraine and that we also appreciate the setting in Potsdam Science Park as a melting point of nations and try to further a culture of togetherness.

Professor Wiggering, thank you for taking the time to talk to us.

This blog and the projects of “Standortmanagement Golm GmbH” in Potsdam Science Park are funded by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and the State of Brandenburg.

Picture credits: Prof. Hubert Wiggering © Universität Potsdam