Berlin Science Congresses: 10 years of the World Health Summit
One of the world’s leading researchers into pharmacology and molecular medicine, Professor Detlev Ganten MD, PhD, has received many honorary doctorates and international awards for his work, and been honoured by Germany with the Order of Merit of Berlin and the Federal Cross of Merit. After moving to Berlin in 1991, the city has been the focal point of his work and research. And now every year, he turns Berlin into an interface for global efforts to improve the well-being of people everywhere.
In 2009, Professor Ganten founded the World Health Summit (WHS) to discuss global health issues and concerns with scientific, political, economic and social experts from 100 countries. This year, under the patronage of Angela Merkel, Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, Emmanuel Macron, President of the French Republic, and Jean Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, the WHS is celebrating its tenth anniversary.
We spoke to Professor Ganten, WHS founder and President, about Berlin's importance as a location for science and a congress metropolis.
Professor Ganten, when and how did you get to know Berlin?
I moved to Berlin on 5 September 1991 – a day I’ll never forget. Until then, I’d had a quiet life as a scientist at Heidelberg University. Suddenly, there was German reunification, and it brought a management task I never would have dreamt of before – to head, as founding director, the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine (MDC), created from three former institutes of the East German Academy of Sciences in Berlin-Buch. Before reunification, I was largely unfamiliar with Berlin and it was not especially attractive as a scientific location.
What changes have you seen in Berlin since then?
At that time, most people only associated Berlin with the Nazi era, or with Kaiser Wilhelm and spiked helmets. Today, nearly 30 years later – everything has changed! Berlin is the only city in Germany – and perhaps in the world – where nothing is still the way it once was 25 years ago. Since reunification, Berlin has changed unbelievably in all areas and levels – politically, economically, and institutionally.
So what makes Berlin into a city of science today?
Berlin can look back on an outstanding scientific tradition. That’s also one reason why Berlin managed to become an international city of science again so quickly as well as the city for communication on a big scale between nations – a ‘melting pot’, just as New York had been earlier. Berlin is attractive for young people, open to new ideas, and so especially important for scientists, scholars and artists. The city’s likeable chaos and unpredictability leaves plenty of space for creativity and diversity. Today, Berlin is home to many scientific institutions, universities as well as universities of applied sciences and around 80 public sector research institutes, all attracting the best people in their field from around the world. Very few cities anywhere in the world can match this high level in education and training. Moreover, Berlin is a spreading city, and its large surface area offers lots of space for start-ups, science, art and very new, creative projects.
… and for scientific congresses. Is the World Health Summit an example of that success?
Even in 2009, the year the WHS was founded, it proved so successful that the German Chancellor, the French President and organisations such as the WHO – the World Health Organization – became involved. Over the last ten years, the World Health Summit has developed very rapidly, and now attracts over 2,000 participants from 100 countries. Today, it is the leading platform for global health issues, with additional expert meetings around the world and an influence on the political sphere – including the agenda of the G7/G8 and G20 summits. So, yes – it certainly is an example of success!
How does the World Health Congress differ from other medical congresses?
Rather than being a classic medical congress, the WHS is a holistic health congress. That’s precisely why it has been so successful, since it foregrounds health, both in content and structure – and does so globally. The issues debated here are not just medical, but also address the environment, climate, behaviour, nutrition, urban development, infrastructure and lots more. Of course, when health problems appear nationally and internationally, such as Ebola or avian flu, we need medicine and vaccinations – but also more than just that. We have to bring these sectors together with the political sphere, civil society, science and industry. There was nothing like that before. So that is, as it were, the great success of the World Health Summit – providing a unique and very broad forum.
What role does Berlin play in the success of such an event?
Berlin is a fantastic location for the WHS – for a number of reasons. First, people love coming to Berlin, and find it a city with an open, welcoming atmosphere. And whatever the main event, with all the side events and museums, Berlin is always worth a visit. Moreover, if it’s going to be Germany, then it should be Berlin. As the capital city, it is home to politics and policy-makers across all parties, making this also a location dealing with global questions in health policy. Berlin is a window on the world. What’s more, it’s a place where the process of organising events runs like clockwork, you can find specialists on every topic, there’s no problems with visas, and always ready professional support, for instance, from visitBerlin. Here too, you can design ambitious and demanding programmes – not least thanks to the excellent cooperation with international and world-renowned institutions such as the Charité Hospital.
So Berlin, its institutions and actors are important partners?
Yes, here you can find a wealth of outstanding, experienced partners and outstanding locations for conferences and other events. If you are organising an event, you feel welcome and supported professionally. When our participants arrive in Tegel Airport, they are greeted with a large banner on the World Health Summit – and that has an emotional value, just as do all the side events and meetings beyond the WHS itself. This is all arranged in close cooperation with Berlin and with visitBerlin. We and all our participants are very keen on not staging a congress behind closed doors, but encouraging Berlin to take part. Both at the KOSMOS location and beyond.
Why did you choose the KOSMOS?
The available space in the Charité Hospital and later in the Federal Foreign Office quickly proved too small. We were looking for somewhere to facilitate interaction and communication, where everything could be closer. When the Humboldt Forum is finished, we’d also like to organise the World Health Summit around the new palace. The idea is to have a kind of campus, organised in close cooperation with the Humboldt University, the Federal Foreign Office and the European School of Management and Technology (ESMT). We’re already in talks about that – and it would create a very attractive campus for meetings of all kinds right in the heart of the city.
What other plans and goals are there for the future? And what’s the overall objective?
Well, it’s not about quick growth and expanding the World Health Summit from 2,000 to 10,000 participants. The focus is far more on cultivating personal contacts, staying up-to-date on topical concerns and emerging issues. Here, the collaboration of the M8 Alliance of Academic Health Centers, Universities and National Academies works wonderfully as a key think tank, as do the global WHS Regional Meetings and WHS Expert Meetings. Those are events where everyone learns something new, with networks created and contacts established that would never happen otherwise – for example, NGOs may often be hesitant about meetings with industry and politics. So, that’s one major focus. The other important area is promoting the new generations, for instance, through the New Voices in Global Health or Young Physician Leaders programmes organised with the ESMT.
In future, what topics are a must for a health congress agenda?
Good question. Of course, the agenda should address all the standard issues such as contagious and non-contagious diseases – so from obesity and diabetes to cardiovascular illnesses, the ageing population and mental health, as well as the affordability of health care. But in world health, education is a key factor. Well-educated people are mindful of their own health, and that of others. Here, mothers and families, as well as social determinants, also play a decisive role. We are increasingly looking at these factors, and especially at education.
Can Berlin be a factor in world heath?
Yes. Together with Burkhard Kieker from visitBerlin, in Q Berlin Questions we also explored the question: Where is the world heading? It’s clear that the main concern is humanity’s well-being – and that’s goes far beyond questions of health. In that area, we want to encourage a dialogue between cultures and religions. We also want to bring original thinkers with pioneering ideas to Berlin. Our specific contribution here is the notion of taking health as an issue affecting each of us personally, and which interests everyone enough to join a process of dialogue. With the Humboldt Forum and idea of a campus, Berlin offers an ideal, intercultural interface for just that process. On the other hand, the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide an important framework for this holistic approach.
Finally, we’d ask you to tell us what the WHS will look like in ten years’ time
In October 2028, thousands of specialists in the scientific, economic and political spheres and from civil society will be coming from all over the globe to attend the World Health Summit in Berlin, the capital of health – a magnet for everyone wanting to work together to improve global health. Just as it once was 100 years ago – in the days of Robert Koch, Emil von Behring, Paul Ehrlich or Rudolf Virchow. In future, the Charité Hospital, the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine, the Berlin Institute of Health, other research institutes and Berlin’s universities, will be fuelling progress through their strong conviction that science and research have a duty to transfer their results into improved health. After all, health is a human right for everyone in the world.
In this development, Germany with its capital Berlin presents itself as a country whose history led to it champion modern, humanitarian projects all over the world. That spiked helmet will be a thing of the past for good. In ten years, the world will be meeting in the heart of the city, with the Humboldt Forum as the focal point, to discuss whether we have put the necessary energy into driving forward the Agenda 2030 and achieving the SDGs, and meeting our responsibilities for the following generations. In ten years, if we all use our energies and the wonderful possibilities we have to the full, we will have made significant progress.
Thank you! Our thanks to Prof. Dr. Detlev Ganten for this discussion!
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Prof. Dr. Ganten – Short biography:
- Founder (2009) and President of the World Health Summit
- Specialist for pharmacology and molecular medicine
- The world’s leading research scientist in hypertension and cardiovascular diseases
- After studying medicine at the Universities of Würzburg, Montpellier and Tübingen, he spent several years as a research scientist at McGill University, Montreal (Canada).
- In 1973, he was appointed Professor at the Department of Pharmacology at the University of Heidelberg.
- In 1991, Professor Ganten moved to Berlin as Founding Director and President of the Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine (MDC), and was later Chief Executive Officer at the “Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin” (2004-2008).