The Concept of the Academy: A Brief History

Academies of sciences and humanities are societies uniting select groups of scholars distinguished by outstanding contributions to science and research. They provide their members with a forum for the regular and interdisciplinary exchange of research questions, insights and findings. On occasion of the 250th anniversary of the Göttingen Academy of Sciences and Humanities, the former president of the Federal Republic of Germany Johannes Rau described the significance of academies for the contemporary research landscape: “Nowhere else places the focus on scholarly exchange quite like the Academies do. Nor is any other institution as firmly rooted in the traditions of scholarship as the Academies are. I hold both factors to be more important today than ever before, for science can only withstand and make use of increasing social and economic pressures as long as it maintains places of refuge for itself at a distance from day-to-day business.” Academies may thus be characterised as places where science and research is the exclusive, uninterrupted priority. They are fora for science to take shape and find its own identity – vital prerequisites for a fruitful dialogue across the disciplines, as well as between science and society.

Furthermore, the German academies of science and humanities are non-university research institutions that undertake long-term basic research projects. Thanks to their organisational structure, they are able to carry out large-scale research projects processing large amounts of data at competitive costs while meeting high scientific standards. Eight German science academies are united under the umbrella of the Union of the German Academies of Sciences and Humanities, which coordinates the so-called “Academies’ Programme”, currently the most comprehensive and prominent humanities research programme in the Federal Republic of Germany.

The Academies’ Programme is unique, even in an international context. The great academies of other nations also have long-term research projects of their own, many of them carried out in cooperation with German projects; what they do not have, however, is a comparable academies’ programme. Such decentralised collaboration is characteristic of the German tradition, as Professor Volker Gerhardt, the chairman of the Union’s Scientific Commission until 2013, has emphasised.

The German academies of science and humanities are guardians of classical education. They hold scientific conferences and public lectures series, and promote young researchers in the sciences and humanities. They also award numerous prizes and medals to honour outstanding contributions to research.

The name “academy” dates back to Plato’s school of philosophy and learning (founded approximately 385 BC) that used to meet for fruitful debates in the Gardens of Akademos. After the revival of the concept in Renaissance Italy, academies in the modern sense of the word began to emerge in the latter half of the 17th century. As scholars increasingly turned away from theology and public law and towards experimental natural sciences and the development of historico-philological source criticism, those in power took a growing interest in the small independent learned societies. They were granted sovereign privileges and taken into the service of their rulers as advisors in matters of infrastructure, farming, the state and technological development.

Germany saw the foundation of the world’s first academy of natural and medical sciences, the German Academy of Natural Scientists Leopoldina in 1652. The Royal Society of London was founded in 1660, the Parisian “Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres” was founded in 1663, and the “Académie des Sciences” in 1666.

In the year 1700, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz succeeded in establishing a single academy covering all academic disciplines, the Society of Sciences of the Elector of Brandenburg in Berlin, which later became the Royal Academy of Prussia. Similar academies were hence founded on this model in the kingdoms of Hanover (Göttingen, 1751), Bavaria (Munich, 1759), Saxonia (Leipzig, 1846) and Baden (Heidelberg, 1909), and, somewhat later, in Mainz (1949), Düsseldorf (1970) and Hamburg (2004). A German Academy of Science and Technology came into being with acatech in 1997. The Academy of Sciences of the German Democratic Republic was dissolved as a result of German reunification.

Eighteenth-century Europe was characterised by a rapidly growing academy movement: the importance of discovering and understanding the world rather than simply believing and accepting what was said took hold. The demand for a république des sciences that transcended the national, denominational and social barriers resulted in the formation of scholarly academies and societies.

The structure of the German academies today is thus comprised of eight multidisciplinary learned societies and research academies based on the Leibniz model and united under the umbrella of the Union of German Academies. It is further comprised of the Leopoldina National Academy of Sciences, acatech – the National Academy of Science and Engineering, and of the Scholarly Society of Brunswick, the Academy of Public Sciences in Erfurt, and the Leibniz Society of Berlin.

© Union der deutschen Akademien der Wissenschaften 2014