Interview with our new honorary doctor Bernhard Eitel

Interview with our new honorary doctor Bernhard Eitel
Bernhard Eitel was the rector of Heidelberg University between 2007 and 2023. He is a globally renowned representative of geomorphology, soil geography, and geoarchaeology, i.e., the archaeological application of geographical and earth science methods. During his term of office, the cooperation between Heidelberg University and Eötvös Loránd University, founded on one of our university’s first Western European contractual relations established before 1989, was further strengthened. As a geographer, Bernhard Eitel plays a vital role in the life of the Institute of Geography at Heidelberg University, which has long had close research and mobility relations with the Center for Geography at Eötvös Loránd University. Ferenc Gyuris, head of the Department of Social and Economic Geography, interviewed Professor Eitel on the occasion of his inauguration as an honorary doctor.

How did you get interested in geography and landscape development?

As early as my school years, I was interested in many things. After finishing secondary school, I considered studying history, but the requirement of a higher-level language exam in Latin refrained me from that. I was collecting minerals, especially from the Black Forest, so mineralogy and geology were also close to me. Geography is a spatial science, i.e., it integrates many phenomena and the knowledge of many natural and social sciences disciplines. That makes geography exciting and opens the floor for developing different competency profiles. That is how I found a way as a scientist to connect physical geography with archeological science and geoarchaeology. Ultimately, landscape history and environmental history are also “history.”

 Your research covers a wide range of topics, from soil geography to environmental management to geoarchaeology. How would you present your most important research topics, and what is the current focus of your academic interest?

Clearly, my research foci are geomorphology and soil geography, which we apply to elaborate different research questions. Analytical and dating methods, such as the luminescence dating of sediments, have become progressively accurate. Hence, we can better and better reconstruct the spatiotemporality of landscape-forming processes and make significant contributions to reconstructing paleoenvironmental developments.

That is where drylands gain growing attention because they, on the one hand, have been examined in relatively minor detail, cover approximately 30% of Earth’s land surface area, and constitute essential reserve areas for the world’s growing population. They react highly sensitively to changing precipitation and thus are considered so-called “reactive spaces” and high-risk areas for their human population in times of climate change. In drylands, even minor fluctuations in air humidity result in significant changes in the ecosystem. Hence, dryland research is becoming increasingly important.

Reconstructing paleoenvironmental circumstances is critical to estimating the significance of contemporary environmental changes. Our intensifying cooperation with archaeologists opens new perspectives to the processes of the past and reactions and adaptations by humans in particular regions, especially when it comes to the Holocene. We should not separate the human and the environment from each other. Humans are part of the Earth system. That explains the emergence of the relatively new field of geoarchaeology.

 Interdisciplinarity plays a central role in your research. In your opinion, how can one overcome the challenges of cooperation with the representatives of different disciplines, and what is the most important added value of interdisciplinary research?

It is essential for many projects, especially those dealing with complex topics, to connect different areas of expertise. No one knows or can do everything. But I emphasize expertise. There are enough people who talk about many things but offer little expertise. This must be avoided.

I am a friend of the term “comprehensiveness.” This comprehensiveness, the integration of expertise, perspectives, and experiences often leads to genuinely advanced new insights, which scientists often perceive as great moments in research. Interdisciplinarity and diversity are not self-esteem; they are instruments. It is often an art to bring together the right people for the right team who understand and accept each other. And the willingness to do this only exists if the other person is academically excellent and everyone involved recognizes the added value of the collaboration.

 It is increasingly emphasized that disseminating new scientific results to non-academic audiences is also enormously important. Particularly in the shadow of global environmental problems, bridging the gap between science and the public is becoming increasingly critical. From your perspective, what role can geography and geosciences play in this?

Science is generally funded by taxpayers. Therefore, people outside universities and research institutions have a right to hear and understand what is being done with their money. This, in turn, increases the willingness to finance further basic research.

Regarding basic research, it is crucial to convey that the findings from basic research do not enable direct transfer to product development and marketing. But on the way to new findings over a long time span, basic research always leads to new technologies that are (further) developed, unexpected new findings, and highly competently trained specialists and scientifically educated graduates. Hence, searching for the new, for knowledge, comes before translation and transfer. The knowledge gained from research is the prerequisite for its application. Application-oriented research, or, better to say, development for product development, is based on proven scientific findings, which must first arise from research.

That applies to all sciences, including earth sciences and geography. Just like in all disciplines, communicating this is an ongoing task for us. You must always keep your distance from your research, too, because mistakes can never be ruled out. Good science conveys knowledge (not opinions), and society must democratically negotiate what conclusions it draws from the findings and what actions it takes from them. That also applies to the challenges of our time, such as the recent climate change.

For sixteen years, you led Heidelberg University, one of the most internationally renowned centers of scientific research and education, as rector. To what extent and how did your geographical expertise and the geographical perspective help you in that?

Geography is very good at building bridges between disciplines. I also think that geographers are distinguished by their ability to present and communicate complex issues visually or graphically in an understandable way. That helps immensely, even in the implementation of complex issues. We are familiar with teamwork, as we often use geophysical, mineralogical, geochemical, and other technical methods. For this purpose, exchanges with experts from neighboring disciplines are very important. The third thing I would like to mention is the international experience. Anyone who has carried out and/or organized research projects in various regions of the world has learned to take responsibility for the project, the employees, and the results. This kind of experiential knowledge allows you to look beyond your local horizon, have distance from your environment, and maybe recognize earlier than others what decisions are necessary in scientific competition.

Securing a university’s permanent ability to renew, keeping it dynamic, and developing it further also require entrepreneurial thinking. A university is not an enterprise but needs strictly meritocratic creative thinking at all levels. That is the fuel for science; it needs competition, not as a battle between scientists and students among themselves and against each other, but in the struggle for further knowledge.

 During your term as rector, we celebrated the 30th anniversary of the partnership between Heidelberg University and Eötvös Loránd University and the 100th anniversary of the death of our university’s eponym, Loránd Eötvös, who received his doctorate in Heidelberg in 1870. How do you assess the current cooperation between the two universities and its future potential?

Baron Loránd Eötvös received his doctorate from the physicist Kirchhoff, the chemist Bunsen, and the mathematician Königsberger. As my late colleague Peter Meusburger, also an honorary doctor of ELTE, showed, at that time, there were comparatively many students and scientists in Germany and Heidelberg from what is now Hungary and Romania. Exchange and collaboration have thus a long tradition.

As early as 1982, our universities contacted each other again and organized the exchange. We were not forced to do so, but we wanted to do so because we both recognized the sense of cooperation. Science also builds bridges across borders because good research and innovative teaching are always international. They radiate internationally and attract interest and people again.

I am very grateful to Hungary, and I will not forget the pictures when Hungarian border guards cut through the barbed wire fence on the Austrian border in 1989 and helped make it easier for us to meet each other again. The fact that after the first thirty years of our cooperation, in 2012, we were able to expand further and intensify our university partnership was groundbreaking. We are now working more and more intensively on European science policy as part of the LERU–CE7 partnership between the League of European Research Universities (LERU) and Central European Universities (CE7). Fortunately for our students and young academics, mobility is supported by programs such as EU Erasmus funding and various scholarships. For many young people, studying thoroughly abroad is a high hurdle, so I welcome the fact that more and more short-term exchanges are possible and practiced. As Europeans, we should be aware of our diversity and see it as an opportunity. We Europeans not only have the critical mass to achieve great things in science, but we also have the extensive and historically developed critical comprehensiveness and diversity of perspectives and experiences, for which others envy us. We, as Europeans, must use both “critical mass” and “critical comprehensiveness” for the benefit of people and regarding the challenges of our time. Based on their rich history and traditions, ELTE and Heidelberg University can make an exemplary contribution and realize their great scientific potential even better together.