Prof. Benjamin List: “Communicating science accurately is vital – otherwise we will never achieve trust in science”

Benjamin List profile

Photo Henning Kretschmer/Max-Planck-Institut für Kohlenforschung

Prof. Dr Benjamin List was awarded the 2021 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his work on asymmetric catalysis alongside David MacMillan from Princeton University. He studied chemistry at the Free University of Berlin and earned his doctorate at Goethe University Frankfurt (1997, Prof. G. Mulzer). He worked at the Scripps Research Institute Department of Molecular Biology in La Jolla, USA as a postdoctoral researcher in the labs of Carlos F. Barbas III and Richard Lerner from 1997 to 1998 and as an assistant professor from 1999 to 2003. In 2003, he joined the Max Planck Institute for Coal Research as the leader of a research group and in 2005, he became one of the institute’s directors, a position in which he still serves. He is also currently a Specially Appointed Professor at Hokkaido University, Japan (since 2020) and Honorary Professor at the University of Cologne (since 2004). Prof. List is a highly decorated scientist and has been awarded dozens of prestigious prizes and appointments in the field of chemistry. He shared his fascination with catalysis with the audience at the 71st Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting and spoke about the beauty of photosynthesis. He says he is already living his dream as a researcher and hopes to find a way to stop global warming by converting carbon dioxide in the atmosphere with the help of sunlight.

Do we need trust in science and what can that achieve?

Benjamin List: Yes, humanity should have confidence in science. The work of scientists is what helps our species to develop and solve the challenges of our times. How would we face climate change, hunger and pandemics, just to name a few examples, without the help of scientists?

Did the pandemic change anything as regards public trust in science? Is there a crisis or an upsurge in it?

Benjamin List: I do believe that the pandemic has changed the way people think about science and that is not surprising. Many important decisions all over the world were made in response to scientific findings! Moreover, these decisions, for example home schooling, remote work, shutdowns and travel bans, have had a rather strong impact on our everyday lives. I would say that this has not led to only a crisis or only an upsurge. It seems to me that a certain division within our society has become larger, though.

Is science communication important for scientists?

Benjamin List: Communication is of fundamental relevance to our society in general. Science communication, therefore, is of relevance not only to scientists but to nearly everyone. The research being done in laboratories, be it chemical, biological, medical or physical, is important and fascinating. Nevertheless, it may also appear frightening to some and not everybody understands the technical terms used by scientists. People tend to fear what they do not understand. So yes, communicating science accurately is vital – otherwise we will never achieve trust in science, as we were speaking about before.

How should misinformation be confronted? Who is and who should be responsible for this?

Benjamin List: In every argument, be it scientific or otherwise, you will find opponents who both believe they are right. To win an argument, you need to convince your opponent, right? I do believe in the power of truth, and I do believe that we as scientific community have to be convincing in what we are doing. We have to explain things properly and speak openly about our work. Transparency is the key, in my opinion. This is how we work in science, anyway: we publish our findings openly and get critical feedback from other experts. As Karl Popper put it, ‘science is one of the very few human activities – perhaps the only one – in which errors are systematically criticised and fairly often, in time, corrected’; truth will prevail! We are all responsible for confronting misinformation. That means the media, governments, society and, of course, scientists. We want our children to grow up as well-informed people who can make decisions based on well-founded opinions, don’t we?

There is widespread suspicion towards chemistry. What would you say to someone who feels that way?

Benjamin List: Before saying anything, I would listen first. Where does the suspicion come from? What exactly is it that this person does not like about ‘my’ science? Then I would try to answer his or her questions and explain my passion for chemistry, which is indeed a beautiful science, a fundamental cultural accomplishment and a key technology that heals, feeds, warms and transports humanity. It’s not flawless, of course, but we are working on it!

Academic freedom is a scientist’s right. What are researchers’ responsibilities while exercising and preserving this right? Have you ever felt or witnessed an attempt to abuse it?

Benjamin List: Luckily, I never personally witnessed an attempt to abuse academic freedom, which is indeed a very important right for scientists, especially when it comes to basic research. It makes no sense to limit the expansion of our knowledge. Nevertheless, we do have certain responsibilities, of course. We must always be aware of the possible consequences of our findings. History has proven that scientific results can be abused for wrong purposes. I am sure that most of my colleagues agree with me when I say that academic freedom must not stand above the common ethic values of our society.

When and what was your first step in science?

Benjamin List: I took my first steps in science when I was 11 years old. I was very interested in chemistry and a couple of friends of mine and I did some experiments in the basement of one of them. Unfortunately, one time I blew up our attempt to make gunpowder, and the pharmacist working in the same building subsequently stopped our little undertaking. Luckily, this did not stop me from becoming a chemist.

What is your dream as a researcher?

Benjamin List: Honestly, I am already living my dream as a researcher. I love my profession, I love the scientific community I am part of and I love working on catalysis. One specific dream I have is to find a way to extract and convert carbon dioxide from the atmosphere with the help of sunlight and thus stop global warming and save our fossil resources.

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