Nature Magazine Profiles Bren Dean Ernst von Weizsäcker


2 February 2006



By Virginia Gewin

Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker, Dean, Bren School of Environmental Science & Management, University of California, Santa Barbara

1998-2005: Member of the Bundestag, Berlin, Germany

1991-2000: Founding president, Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy, Berlin, Germany

1984-1991: Director, Institute for European Environmental Policy, Bonn, Germany

Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker is proof that scientific disciplines don't define destiny personal energy does. He has worked on projects on a wide range of topics, from climate and energy to world peace, as both a researcher and a politician. This isn't too surprising: von Weizsäcker studied chemistry and physics at the University of Hamburg in Germany, only to switch to biology for a PhD on honeybee vision at Freilburg University. "I always sensed that the mainstream disciplinary approach was exhausted that the new field of interests were located at the interface of existing disciplines," he says.

Always an environmentalist, who also describes himself as an opportunist, he has sought a highly varied career. After finishing graduate school during the cold war, he used his natural-sciences background to do research on peace at the Protestant Research Institute in Heidelberg, Germany. Following both a professorship in interdisciplinary biology at the University of Essen and his involvement with the German Social Democratic Party, he wrote a book on university reform. This interest inspired him not only to become founding president of the University of Kassel, but to create several interdisciplinary research centres, including the first in Germany devoted to organic farming. 

In 1991, he formed the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy, a think-tank seeking radical policy approaches to eco-efficiency: maximizing the value of products or services while reducing their environmental burden. He realized that the obstacles had less to do with scientific knowledge and more to  do with policy.

He was so passionate about the ecco-efficiency cause that he successfully ran for a seat in Germany's parliament, the Bundestag.  For the past three years, he was chairman of the Bundestag Environment Committee, which pushed to align German environmental policies with European ones.  "That was not overly successful," he admits. Politics is quite a difficult thing compared with the sciences, he says.

Resisting invitations to run again for parliament, he accepted an offer to direct the Bren School of Environmental Science & Management at the University of California, Santa Barbara.  He was impressed by its interdisciplinary structure, which combines science with management.

Given his varied career, von Weizsäcker's advise is not surprising.  "Be bold. Don't stick to just one discipline. Use your curiosity in another discipline and ask the questions those trained in the field would not ask."


nature/vol 493/2 February 2006

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