'Close to scientific paradise'

‘Close to scientific paradise’

The Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics is 30 years old this very month! During three turbulent decades, the MPI has set the research agenda for the whole world in the psychology of language. Time to look back – and forth – with the institute’s founders: Pim Levelt and Wolfgang Klein. One statement might summarise the interview: ‘This place comes close to scientific paradise…’

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Jan 26, 2010

‘Hardly anything is the same’, says Levelt, comparing the MPI in 1980 and in 2010. ‘The institute has become much bigger’, Klein confirms, ‘but the intellectual spirit remains.’

Language in context

‘One of the primary ideas, mostly Wolfgang’s, has been constant’, Levelt says. ‘The idea that we should look at language use in context. This tradition existed in linguistics, but not in experimental psychology. We’ve been trying to bring these two together, but at the beginning it was very hard. There was a deep mistrust between linguists and experimental psychologists, they hardly talked to each other. But that mistrust has now been overcome. We study language in context, without giving up on experimental precision and sophistication. That is one of the major characteristics of this institute.’

image_miniDriven by general curiosity

Doing research driven by general curiosity has always been the institute’s adage. Klein: ‘Study what you think is really interesting. We take no one-sided approach. New topics come up all the time and interesting new areas continually open up. Our projects have always been very diverse and extreme.’ Levelt: ‘I sometimes joked: “we have no fixed research programme”. If you wake up in the morning with an interesting idea, go for it! That freedom is one of the wonderful characteristics of the Max Planck institutes. Intellectual freedom and the potential for instant innovation are marvelous properties.’
But times are changing quickly, both directors note. Levelt: ‘Science has become very competitive and young people have to perform, or else they have no opportunities or scientific future. The pressure has increased enormously! We have to train students and prepare them for real life. That’s okay, but we shouldn’t lose the larger perspective. Competition is good, but it should not drive people apart.’ Klein: ‘I like to quote John Ross, Professor of Chemistry (emer.) at Stanford University: “Science is war, but it should be a joint work of love”…’

Two directors looking back on the past 30 MPI years. What are you most proud of?

Levelt: ‘We have largely set the research agenda for the whole world within this discipline. That’s a major achievement. We are still the only institute in the world solely devoted to psycholinguistics. There are institutes or departments in other countries working in particular subfields, but we try to cover the field as a whole. That makes this institute unique.’

Klein: ‘New research fields are constantly emerging – from neurocognition to genetics. But we shouldn’t give up what we have established. How does the human brain work?, is an important question, but we want to find out what human languages are like. Not everything can be found in the brain. fMRI does enrich our research, but it doesn’t replace the other observational and experimental methods.’
Levelt: ‘There is one important rule about scientific innovation: if one well-developed tradition meets another well-developed tradition, the sparks of innovation are likely to fly. Scientific innovation thrives by multidisciplinarity. We have to look for research endeavors that haven’t yet come into contact, as in the recent case of linguistics and genetics.’

Anything you regret?

Levelt: ‘Don’t ask me about mistakes, I’ve made numerous. One day, I will write an anti-autobiography.’ For instance? ‘We have more than once appointed the wrong people. But I have learned one lesson: You can estimate whether a person is intelligent and ambitious, but what I’ve given up predicting is whether two people can cooperate. Sometimes it works and sometimes people avoid one another before the first week is out.’ Klein: ‘It’s like a marriage, you simply have no idea…’ And he adds: ‘Besides, the most intelligent students are not necessarily the most successful ones.’

Klein: ‘I regret not having finished some of the things I started. Too much for one human life? Probably. But in Germany we say: “Man muss den Sack auch zumachen”.

Levelt: ‘The ever available opportunity to start new things, to innovate your research, is the luxury of the MPI. There is no other institute like this, it’s just fantastic.’
Klein: ‘This place comes close to scientific paradise.’

Grateful to?

Levelt: ‘I am grateful for the dedicated support of many professional colleagues and friends worldwide. But one person deserves special mention: Reimar Lüst, former president of the Max Planck Society. It was because of his cogency and effectiveness that the unique decision was taken to set up this institute in the Netherlands. To set up a research institute in a foreign country was then totally new for the Max Planck Society. But Reimar Lüst was immediately touched by the idea of the MPS going international in this field. That I find really impressive. And it worked as intended; a new, major international research endeavor was created. I will always remain grateful to the Max Planck Society and to the German tax payer who have, over the years, been liberally supporting us.’